Ed Vaizey: When it comes to digital ad regulation, the industry just needs to get on with it

Ed Vaizey is the MP for Didcot and Wantage and the former minister of state for culture, communications and sport. His column explores the intersection between politics and the digital, media and creative sectors.

Government and industry need to work together to tackle issues such as digital influencer marketing

The government has made a couple of interesting interventions recently, which, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting. The first was a code of conduct agreed with Bing and Google to tackle copyright piracy. The second was a crackdown on ticketing bots, which hoover up tickets to live events in order to sell them on the secondary market.

The Google/Bing deal is voluntary, but it came after the government threatened legislation. The ticketing intervention will require legislation. The Google/Bing deal comes after many, many years of debate and call for action. The bot crackdown has happened relatively quickly.

I mention both of these interventions, because they show that the government is prepared to act – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes by agreement and sometimes by legislation – where it perceives some form of market abuse. This context is relevant when we consider the very vibrant debate that is taking place around the myriad of abuses surrounding digital advertising.

Digital advertising – online and mobile – is huge in the UK, and fast approaching £10bn, with year-on-year double-digit growth. But such rapid growth naturally brings with it many challenges. There have been debates about how to tackle so-called influencer marketing, where celebrities plug products without making it clear that they are being paid to do so. Much more significantly Procter & Gamble’s Mark Pritchard called out the “at best murky, at worst fraudulent” world of digital advertising, pointing out how difficult it was to actually track where advertising was going, and whether it was really being seen by genuine consumers.

Millions of pounds are being wasted. Publishers are becoming increasingly frustrated by the walled garden approach that they see Facebook and Google taking, where they provide the content and the platforms take the revenue. Finally, there are clear public policy implications in advertising inadvertently appearing on – and therefore funding – fake news and extremist websites, so called ‘ad misplacement’.

A question of regulation

Advertising is one of the most effectively self-regulated of mediums. The Advertising Standards Authority is frequently cited as being ‘best in class’ and has a successful track record. The Internet Advertising Bureau plays an effective role as well, addressing the challenges that digital advertising has brought. It has established, for example, the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards, which includes three other advertising trade bodies, as well as working with its US counterparts. The committee is addressing ad fraud by establishing good practice and certification for those that follow it. It also tackles ad misplacement as well as measurement information.

The government is not averse to taking action. I worked with the IAB several years ago to create a list of web sites that effectively traded in copyrighted material, so that advertisers would not appear on them. And more recently, the government took an interest in ad blockers, concerned that they were killing off the industry that pays for the content we enjoy. Too often, many of the big players won’t act unless they clearly see legislation on the horizon, or they can say they are complying with a court order.

There’s clearly an opportunity for the industry and government to come together here – for mutual self-interest. The government wants the UK to be a thriving centre for digital advertising. Paradoxically, perhaps, regulation can be a competitive advantage. Advertisers are attracted to a market with clear, enforceable and effective rules that protect their interests. And of course the industry will want to work with government, to ensure that any intervention reflects the reality of how the industry operates.

My message to the industry is to get on with it. We live in an age of digital advertising. The IAB needs to change its name to the Digital Advertising Association. Someone needs to talk to a marketer about renaming the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards. There need to be some mergers of trade bodies. And then there needs to be some communication of what efforts are being made to tackle the problems that have arisen in digital advertising. Government support and heft needs to be enlisted, so that codes of conduct can potentially be enforced by the ASA. We need to put the UK front and centre of efforts to ensure that digital advertising becomes transparent and accountable.

At the same time, the Government should use the considerable convening power at its disposal to get the platforms round a table to look at a fairer way of sharing revenues. Its already shown it can get them to play ball when it comes to IP issues. And it has shown, in ticketing, that it is prepared to intervene when value is being skimmed off the people who actually create it.

There’s a huge opportunity here, and I hope it will be seized.

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