Bronwen Dalley Smith, Senior External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

What’s next in the fight to tackle online scam ads?

28 April 2022

The first day back in Parliament after Easter recess was jam-packed. MPs got straight to it last Tuesday discussing migration, partygate, energy security and, last but not least, the second reading of the Online Safety Bill (OSB).

As we shared in our February blog, the Bill is an important piece of legislation for us at Money and Mental Health. We have long been campaigning for the government to include scams and scam ads within its scope, to better protect people from the psychological and financial damage scams can cause

And in March we celebrated an important campaign win, when the government announced it will take vital action on online scam adverts and include them in the Bill. Since the Bill was published at the end of last month, we’ve been diving into the details to try and decipher how the draft legislation will work in practice. 

Looking into the detail

While we warmly welcome the government’s decision to act on our call to include scam adverts in the scope of the OSB, we have a couple of remaining questions. We’re seeking clarification on two main concerns, which we’ve summarised below:

  • The legal requirement for search engines to tackle scam adverts is weaker and seems less onerous than for social media platforms. The Bill stipulates that large social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook will have a duty to prevent people from encountering scam content on their sites. They will also be expected to minimise the length of time that such content is available, and to swiftly take it down. However, search engines such as Google have a less stringent legal duty under the Bill. They will only be required to “minimise the risk” of individuals encountering scams content on their site. This raises concerns about whether the legal duty for search engines is strong enough or whether it would create a loophole in protections that scammers could exploit.
  • The OSB’s measures will not apply to all websites that host adverts. In the current wording of the Bill, it seems that some smaller, ‘user-to-user’ websites that host adverts have not been included in these measures. The Bill leaves the decision on which websites are in or out of scope to the Secretary of State, drawing on advice from the regulator Ofcom. The government is also taking action through a new consultation exploring how to ramp up regulation of online advertising more broadly. But this uncertainty over the scope means there is a risk that scammers will target consumers through paid-for content on these smaller sites.

Keeping up the pressure on government

We’re pleased that these issues were raised during the second reading by Dame Margaret Hodge MP and others. During her contribution, Dame Hodge shared our concerns that “search engines fall through the cracks” of the Bill; and that “regulation must be based on risk, not size”. Responding to this particular issue, Chris Philp MP, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, said that he “will give some thought to how the question of small but high-risk platforms can be covered.” 

One to watch

We understand that this is a complex piece of legislation and there are many elements to consider, so we look forward to seeing the Bill reach committee stage and seeing how this intricate jigsaw will piece together. In particular, we will be continuing to work with MPs to ensure that the Online Safety Bill delivers the consumer protection needed against online scammers — and that it doesn’t leave gaps for them to exploit.

We’ll be checking in on the Bill’s progress as it moves through Parliament, so do keep an eye on our social feeds and here on our blog for further updates.

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