Column Our favourite controller of UK media, Ofcom, is being given new powers to regulate the internet. Or censor it, depending on your preferred spin. It's all a bit fuzzy at the moment: with illegal content, the regulator will watch for the usual monsters of terrorism and child abuse and act swiftly to close them down and keep them down.
The second category of interest, harmful but not illegal, is more problematic – the regulator will be able to fine companies who don't act promptly to enforce their own terms of service.
Yet there's a third of online content that is weakly regulated and potentially very damaging – online advertising. In the UK, this is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority or ASA, and its primary job is finding open doors to empty stables and politely pushing them shut. On some matters, it won't even do that. The ASA doesn't regulate political ads – legal, decent, honest and truthful might apply to Johnson & Johnson baby powder, but not to a Johnson baby daddy. In terms of social damage, little has as much dark potential as political advertising, especially targeted political advertising paid for by dark horses which have never even seen the inside of a stable. It can destroy a country.
Oddly enough, Facebook of all places has the germ of an idea that may rein this in. Its Ad Library shows which organisations are pushing what advertising to whom. Great stuff, and if you haven't spent any time there burrowing like a carrion beetle through the corpses of campaigns past, you're not paying enough attention. It feels odd praising Facebook for responsible, effective moves towards transparency, yet well done, Zuck.
That's enough of that. Ad Library doesn't go nearly far enough. Some of that is Facebook's call – it said recently that it wouldn't include paid-for political flummery emitted by Instagram influencers. There have been reports that information has disappeared close to elections. It's guesswork where those lie on the spectrum between evil manipulation through tech cock-uppery to nothingburger: with no legal requirement to maintain the database to any particular standards, we may never find out.
More importantly, Ad Library only covers Facebook products. Shockingly, there are other social media platforms. Rumour has it that there are even news sites, broadcasters and a wide variety of other content providers out there, many of whom accept money for advertising.
This sounds like a job for a regulator. Here's the proposal. All content that one organisation pays another to publish on the internet has to be registered in a public, searchable, permanent database. Who buys, who sells, who reads, what it is, when it was out there. The database is run by the regulator, with the usual fines for non-compliance.
The fish caught in this net will be much more diverse than those generally considered advertising: a good thing. One of the greyest areas in the journalistic shadowlands is paid-for content that masquerades as news or an independent feature. Advertorial. Ugh. An ethical publication – you're reading one right now – will always make it clearer what's an advert, what's editorial. Many less wholesome outlets don't, or at the very least engage in paroxysms of ambiguity. With this proposal, you'll be able to tell. The internet will be actually more honest than print ever was.
Which regulator gets the job? Ofcom already knows about content compliance; the BBC has a vast and pretty otiose system of telling the regulator what it's broadcasting and whether it's got anything that might frighten the horses. Sources inside the Beeb say that complying output is a pain in the arse and leads to the usual Pythonesque horse trading of which programmes get to use up the daily quota of rude words. But it doesn't stop business.
Since Ofcom is already being asked to keep an eye on things online, it makes sense to make it the home of this National Library of Hyperbole. It won't have to read the damn thing unless someone makes a complaint, so it's not too onerous. No approval, no licensing, no annual reports. And as a benefit, just like the other national libraries around, the result of compulsory filing of published information will soon become an invaluable research tool for multiple industries, academics and historians.
There is a need to know what advertisers are doing online, and online can make that happen. It can collate and distribute information cheaply and widely, giving the tools to check up on the market to the people who really matter – us. A regulator doesn't have to be an enforcer or a punisher, a censor or a thought policeman; it can be an enabler to a better marketplace, and a better society. Not words you often hear in relation to online advertising: let's do it. ®