Online safety bill needs to go further

Liz Field

Liz Field

In a victory for common sense, the joint committee for the online safety bill determined on December 14 last year that paid-for digital adverts, such as those promoting scams, should be included within the scope of the forthcoming bill.

But this did not happen in isolation. Rather, it is the result of intense and continued lobbying by Pimfa and our coalition partners, including Which?, UK Finance, Martin Lewis and Money Saving Expert, The City UK, the Investment Association, the Association of British Insurers, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, among many others.

We have seen some movement by the tech companies themselves. Last September, Google was the first to introduce new requirements that all financial services adverts should be from businesses authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, or from an approved third-party of an FCA-authorised business. Others such as Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have followed their example.

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Self-regulation only goes part of the way, and in any case only covers those entities that adopt it. Legislation, on the other hand, would cover all companies offering online adverts, thus providing increased protection for consumers when they go online, which, since the onset of the pandemic, is most of us.

It would also allow for meaningful deterrent penalties – an important point when you consider that the FCA, currently hampered by the lack of legal options, have only website warnings and a series of adverts.

The situation this bill attempts to remedy is acute and getting worse. In the year to April 2021, Which? found that 413,553 instances of fraud were reported in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – an increase of 33 per cent on the previous 12 months. Action Fraud put the cost of this at well over £2bn.

Given that the National Crime Agency says only 20 per cent of frauds are ever reported, we believe the number of victims of fraud, and the amount of money lost, is far higher than current figures suggest, causing genuine anguish for many.

Surely this is compelling evidence that an urgent review of the priorities within the bill is not only advisable but essential in providing support to those most in need?

Fraud is far from a victimless crime. It is the most common criminal offence in the UK, and the majority of it is committed online. Victims of fraud can lose their entire life savings, which more often than not has a devastating impact on their mental and even physical health.

Yet while life changing sums are being lost by victims, platforms are currently profiting from the paid-for content that facilitates this type of criminal activity.

Consequently, as we believe that the bill should go further in its efforts to protect consumers, we will also be pressing legislators to additionally include Google Ads, ‘hosted’ scams and impersonation fraud. This would also support the FCA in their recent move to strengthen their financial promotions rules.