Opperman: Big tech firms should justify content on sites to stop online harm

Opperman: Big tech firms should justify content on sites to stop online harm
  Minister of state at the Department for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, said Google owner Alphabet's $14bn profit last quarter means its ability to better regulate online ads "is very do-able"

Minister of state at the Department for Work and Pensions Guy Opperman has said current consumer protections against online harm are “pretty ineffective” and the burden of proof should be placed on the likes of Google, Instagram and Facebook to justify the content on their sites.

In a parliamentary debate yesterday (October 27), Opperman said he saw hundreds of constituents defrauded of millions of pounds every single day by fake advertisers when he was pensions minister.

He said he “would be nervous” if the government relied on consumer protection in unfair trading regulations and the actions of the Competition and Markets Authority. 

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“I mean no disrespect, but those provisions are pretty ineffective and do not really address these points,” said Opperman.

“To deal with such issues, the answer is clearly to have a burden of proof on the recipient of the advert that they are vicariously liable for the content they have on their site. That would have a massive benefit.”

In March, the online safety bill came one step closer to becoming law after being introduced to parliament, nearly a year after the first draft was published.

But in July, amid the first Tory leadership race this year, the bill was put on hold until after the summer recess.

There has been a campaign by the Personal Investment Management & Financial Advice Association to include online financial fraud within the bill. In January 2021, Steve Timms MP, the chair of the work and pensions committee, had first told FTAdviser that he was considering bringing an amendment to include financial fraud within the bill.

The government subsequently made provisions to bring online financial fraud within the scope of the bill.

Yesterday, Opperman said there should be consequential, “significant” and repeated fines for those companies unable to evidence due diligence on the adverts they host, pointing out that Google’s parent Alphabet made a $14bn (£12bn) profit last quarter.

“Its ability to regulate and follow through—to take the work that it is required to do by the bill and to check advertisers and be responsible for the content, to put it bluntly—is very do-able, under all circumstances,” said Opperman.

Addressing Damian Collins, the minister for tech and the digital economy, Opperman said he must work with the new Home Office teams to beef up police forces which are going to take these issues forward “considerably”.

“There simply is currently not enough resources to address these issues.”

When he was pensions minister, Opperman said Aviva gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee which indicated there were 55 separate fake Aviva sites advertising on Google for financial services. 

“Constituents, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable, were being misled by those people and were signing away significant proportions of money,” he said.

Opperman was appointed minister of state at the Department for Work and Pensions, a little over a month after being let go as pensions minister.