Why the ASA is relying on AI and tech giants to help it police the online ‘wild west’

Currie believes AI will transform not just the way the ASA works, but other regulators too

The UK ad watchdog is eight months deep into a five-year plan designed to help it better police digital advertising. Now, following a series of early experiments with AI technology, it can envision a future where the complex world of online regulation is automated – but it needs help from Facebook et al to succeed.

At the helm of Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) five-year blueprint to become a more active regulator and use new tech to protect the public is its chairman Lord David Currie, a cross-bench peer and founding chairman of communications regulator Ofcom.

In 2018, the ASA said complaints about online ads, including social media posts and in-app executions, outnumbered cases related to TV ads by almost three to one. In total, it received 16,059 complaints relating to 14,257 online ads last year, with grievances up 41% on 2017’s figures. Complaints about TV ads clocked in at 10,773 and related to 5748 different pieces of creative.

In line with this shift, Currie is working closely with chief executive Guy Parker to engage all corners of the industry in discussions about helping the regulator flex its regulatory muscle in the digital space, whether that's taking influencers to task for opaque signposting or removing ads that wrongly target kids.

Though he says there’s “undoubtedly” room for improvement in digital ad regulation, Currie is optimistic about the progress the ASA has already made in his two-year tenure as chairman.

“I hear statements from time to time about how online is a wild and I keep making the point that – yes it’s a wild west, in some parts, but in other parts, we’re actually doing quite a good job of regulating.”

This has included experiments with a new ‘avatar’ technology powered by machine learning that is helping it identify the ads children see online and take action to ban anything that flouts the rules.

Currie believes this kind of AI will transform the way the ASA and other regulators operate over the next five years. Though he asserted it was “too early” to say exactly how it would change things for the ASA, he outlined a future in which “clever algorithms” could perform tasks like sending brands enforcement notices when they’ve broken the rules.

However, Currie was explicit in his message that the ASA can’t fulfil this vision without the help of platforms like Facebook and Google, which dominate the UK digital ad market.

“We need to work closely with the big platforms, and we’re in a process of dialogue and discussion with them, it’s the start of a journey,” he said.

Though the notoriously secretive tech giants aren’t renowned for lowering their draw bridges to regulators, Currie would say the ASA has a “good relationship” with the digital duopoly and its competitors: “We’re working closely with them now, because we need them to help implement our strategy.”

What the ASA does want to gain better insight into is how the platforms moderate ads that contravene the rules internally.

“We’d like to understand how they take down ads, what sort of rules they use,” he explained. “Are there things they could incorporate into how they already do things that would benefit us?”

“For example, if we have a big ruling against an ad or a particular ad format, would [the platforms] then be able to be the enforcer online for that type of ad going forward?” he asserted.

With the reverberations of scandals like Cambridge Analytica still rumbling and questions from politicians over how Facebook targets consumers, digital regulation is high on government’s agenda.

This includes the UK, where the House of Lords has urged No.10 to create a central ‘Digital Authority’ to regulate the myriad of watchdogs already operating in the space.

It’s not a concept Currie, who has also chaired the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is necessarily sold on either.

“Further action certainly needs to be taken in the digital space,” he acknowledged. “We’re regulating content but there are lots of other things that are causing concer; online grooming, online offence of various kinds.

“The pressure for regulators coming into that space is only going to increase, [The Lords] suggestion of actually joining together, whether as a super regulator or as a coordinated mechanism is not quite clear.

“What I have cautioned them on though, is if we put in more regulation into the digital, please let’s not interfere and upset what’s already there.”

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