On 30 November, major tech companies, including Meta, Google and Microsoft, signed a voluntary agreement with the UK Government under which they will adopt a number of measures within 6 months to address online fraud (including fraudulent advertisements). This is the latest measure in a slew of actions by the UK Government to address online harms, following the enactment of the Online Safety Act 2023 (OSA) and the announcement in July that a new regulatory framework would be established for online advertising, specifically to regulate participants in the AdTech supply chain (platforms, intermediaries, and publishers) who will be tasked with preventing harmful advertisements to consumers and children. The latter came out of the UK Government's Online Advertising Programme, whose remit is to tackle illegal advertising and to increase protections for children against ads for products/services that are illegal to be sold to them.
At first blush, the Online Fraud Charter appears to address similar issues to the OSA - do they cut across one another?
The OSA is primarily targeted at user-to-user services (being any service that allows content to be generated, uploaded or shared by users (e.g., social media or dating platforms) and search services (which are or include, a search engine). The companies in scope must, amongst a host of other requirements, take steps to tackle online fraud, and a subset of them will have additional duties to prevent fraudulent advertisements, including minimising the length of time fraudulent ads are present and taking them down whenever alerted to, or becoming aware of, such content.
According to the UK Government, the Online Fraud Charter is instead designed to "drive voluntary and more targeted action amongst a smaller, targeted subset of online platforms and services.” It is intended to be complementary to the OSA. However, the Online Fraud Charter is a voluntary agreement (meaning it is non-binding), and any conflict between the OSA or Ofcom's Codes of Practice (which will provide guidance to in-scope firms on how to comply with the OSA) and the Online Fraud Charter, would be resolved in favour of the OSA/Ofcom.
So what has been agreed in the Online Fraud Charter? The actions to be taken include the following:
- Blocking - deploying measures to detect and block fraudulent material
- Reporting - having a simple and quick route to report fraudulent material
- Takedowns - taking action against fraudulent content and users straight away
- Advertising - deploying measures to protect people from fraudulent adverts
- Transparency - providing information about fraud risks and what is being done to address them
Certain measures will apply to all companies and others will apply to specific types of providers only (e.g., for reporting measures, social media networks will have to “provide or develop appropriate warnings where users are contacted by unknown accounts or individuals, through direct messages, who may present a risk of fraud”). Firms have also agreed to implement law enforcement, intelligence sharing, communications and horizon scanning measures under the Online Fraud Charter.
If we focus in on the advertising requirements, all firms have agreed to engage with the Online Advertising Programme's Taskforce, which has developed an action plan to address illegal advertising in anticipation of new regulation coming into force (see the opening paragraph above). And for businesses providing “paid advertising services" (being those who “[run] or [offer] AdTech intermediary services to deliver paid-for marketing/advertising content, but excluding firms acting as publishers using third party AdTech intermediary services or eCommerce marketplaces”), they will also implement the following measures:
- deploying verification measures for new advertisers
- confirming that UK regulated financial services companies are authorised by the FCA prior to serving their ads
- screening content for suspicious content and scanning embedded URLs to monitor if they change during an ad's lifecycle
- identifying and assessing the legitimacy of an advert when it has adopted URL cloaking to hide a destination website's URL by redirecting it to another web page
- committing to and/or moving towards developing a simple fraud reporting mechanism on advertising services and open display ads so users can access the reporting function for fraud within two clicks
All this demonstrates a concerted effort by the UK Government to clamp down on harmful content and illegal advertising practices. The regulatory burden is set to increase further for AdTech participants in particular, as policymakers seek to drive greater accountability and transparency in the advertising supply chain.