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Scam ads to be included in the Online Safety Bill after calls from campaigners including Martin Lewis and MoneySavingExpert

Scam ads are to be included in the Government's Online Safety Bill, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has announced. It's a win for campaigners, including (MSE) and its founder Martin Lewis, who had called to get fraudulent advertising included in the new rules.

The Government has confirmed that ads appearing on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and those on search engines, including Google, will now fall under the remit of the new Online Safety Bill. 

Paid-for scam and fraudulent advertising had been previously omitted from the Bill, but in December a cross-party group of MPs and Lords, whose parliamentary job was to analyse the draft rules, said its exclusion would "obstruct the Government’s stated aim of tackling online fraud". They added that a lack of online regulation had left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and, in some cases, the loss of life.

Martin, MSE, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute - the charity founded by Martin - had teamed up with a host of other charities, agencies and trade bodies to push for the inclusion of scams ads in the Bill, and today's announcement has been welcomed - though it appears display advertising, which you often see on third party websites, is still not within the scope of the Bill.  

Martin Lewis, founder of and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, whose face is among the most used by scammers in the UK, said: "I am thankful the Government has listened to me and the huge numbers of other campaigners – across banks, insurers, consumer groups, charities, police and regulators – who've been desperate to ensure scam adverts are covered by the Online Safety Bill.

"We are amidst an epidemic of scam adverts. Scams don't just destroy people's finances – they hit their self-esteem, mental health and even leave some considering taking their own lives.

"The Government now accepting the principle that scam adverts need to be included, and that firms who are paid to publish adverts need to be responsible for them, is a crucial first step. 

"Until now, only user-generated scams were covered – which risked pushing more scam ads, incentivising criminals to shift strategy.

"Yet the Bill is complex. We need to analyse and scrutinise this update – one of my concerns is it looks like display advertising that you see on third party websites is not within the scope of the Bill when it comes to scam adverts.

"But overall, the big picture is that this is good news and we need to work with Government, Parliament and all the other campaigners and experts to close down the hiding places or gaps scammers can exploit."

For more on Martin's thoughts on the announcement, watch his video below

Embedded YouTube Video

Online tech firms will now need to moderate paid-for ads

Under the current draft of the Online Safety Bill, social media firms and search engines are directed to show a duty of care to protect users from fraud committed by other users. This includes "catfishing" romance scams and fake stock market tips - posted by people in images, comments or videos.

But under the new so-called "fraudulent advertising duty", social media firms and search engines will need to put in place systems to prevent (or minimise in the case of search engines) the publication and/ or hosting of fraudulent advertising on their services and remove them when they are made aware of them. 

It will mean companies having to clamp down on ads featuring unlicensed financial promotions, and on ads fraudulently impersonating legitimate businesses and celebrities, such as Martin.

Nadine Dorries referenced Martin's tweet on the issue from last year

Ofcom will have the power to fine firms that don't follow the rules 

Regulator Ofcom will be in charge of making sure platforms fulfil their new duty. This could include making firms scan for scam adverts before they are uploaded to their systems, measures such as checking the identity of those who wish to publish advertisements, and ensuring financial promotions are only made by firms authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, the financial regulator. 

Ofcom will also have the power to hold companies to account by blocking their services in the UK or issuing fines of up to £18 million or 10% of annual turnover if they fail to follow the rules set out in the Bill - though Ofcom will not assess individual pieces of content. 

Commenting on the announcement, Anabel Hoult, chief executive of consumer group Which? - one of the organisations calling for the inclusion of scam ads in the Bill - said: "This could make a huge difference to stemming the tide of fake and fraudulent ads on social media and search engines which cause devastating financial and emotional harm to innocent victims.

"The Online Safety Bill must now ensure that the regulator has the support and resources it needs to hold companies to account and take strong enforcement action where necessary, so that fraudsters are prevented from using adverts to lure unsuspecting victims."

It's not yet clear when exactly the draft Bill will take force.

The Government will begin a consultation on online advertisements

As part of the announcement, a new consultation on the Government's separate 'Online Advertising Programme' will also get underway for a period of 12 weeks from Wednesday 9 March. The public consultation is aimed at understanding whether the current model of self-regulation is fit for purpose.

It will also assess the merits of establishing a new online advertisement regulator with tougher powers that could include setting mandatory codes of conduct, which, if broken, could see advertisers face fines, blocks and bans.

What does the Government say?

Culture secretary Nadine Dorries said: “We want to protect people from online scams and have heard the calls to strengthen our new internet safety laws. These changes to the upcoming Online Safety Bill will help stop fraudsters conning people out of their hard-earned cash using fake online adverts.

“As technology revolutionises more and more of our lives the law must keep up. Today we are also announcing a review of the wider rules around online advertising to make sure industry practices are accountable, transparent and ethical - so people can trust what they see advertised and know fact from fiction.” 

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