Close-Up: Can ASA effectively regulate the web?

The ASA's remit is to be extended online, but is it too much for one authority, John Tylee asks.

Few industry issues have proved harder to handle than the regulation of online advertising. "It's not an area for heavy-handed legislation," one agency chief argues. "If regulators try that, it'll become so slippery they won't be able to grasp it."

Nevertheless, the Advertising Standards Authority will have to try when its remit is extended to include advertising messages on commercial websites from the second half of this year.

The rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice, anxious to have industry-wide consensus on how the matter should be tackled, left it to the Advertising Association to come up with the answers. This month, the AA sent the CAP its recommendations on how online policing could work.

The AA's suggestions, still under wraps, respond to three fundamental questions - what differentiates an online ad from a piece of editorial, what sanctions can be applied to online abusers and how is the ASA's new role to be funded?

The last matter has become less of a headache since last November, when Google announced it would provide seed capital to bankroll the ASA's extended responsibilities for the first few years.

On the face of it, the ASA looks like a sheriff vainly trying to keep order in a lawless frontier town.

However, the internet isn't quite the bandit country it's made out to be. Not only has online advertising been subject to ASA control since the body became the "one-stop regulatory shop" in 2004, but the Advertising Standards Board Of Finance levy will soon be applied to paid-for search advertising.

Meanwhile, regulators are eager to debunk what they claim is a myth that the control of internet marketing is impossible - pointing to the fact that ISBA members control 60 per cent of UK adspend, 85 per cent is spent through IPA member agencies, and portals such as Google and Yahoo! are onside.

But what's to be done about online advertisers that play fast and loose with the ASA for PR purposes? CAP sources say much attention has been focused on how to deal with the online equivalent of a Benetton or French Connection.

This has led to speculation that rogue advertisers might be compelled to have internet comms pre-vetted or that entire campaigns could be ruled in breach of ASA rules if an online ad contravening them wasn't taken down, but many disagree with this approach.

Nevertheless, as Andrew Brown, the CAP chairman, says, there remains the problem of how to keep tabs on the thousands of small businesses that use the internet to communicate with customers because of its low cost. Many, such as Nokia's Will Harris, believe that this means the scale of the job is just too much for an association to be able to regulate effectively.

The long-term funding of online policing remains unpredictable. The ASBOF levy is voluntary and much depends on the success of the appeals to those who have never paid it before to cough up.

Despite these issues, there is still confidence that a successful regulatory framework can be achieved. "A lot of work has been done on trying to forecast the level of online complaints and we're pretty confident that revenues will grow as we proceed," a CAP member says.

For the moment, though, a lot of evangelising remains to be done. Despite the ASA shunning the chance to talk about the issue, an insider explains: "Our job is to get a lot of people currently outside the system to join in and pay the levy. We have to show them it benefits the whole commercial system - and that it will work."

This will be no small order.

ASSOCIATION HEAD - Rae Burdon, chief operating officer, Advertising Association

"Policing the internet involves some very complex issues. One of them is how you make a distinction between editorial and marketing communication. It's something we've spent a lot of time discussing and I think we've got to the right place.

"This issue has involved us in some protracted and difficult sessions. Yet even though our media owner members have had a lot to say about safeguarding editorial independence, we've established a clear and coherent strategy.

"As far as sanctions are concerned, we've suggested to the CAP what we think would be appropriate deterrents."

CLIENT - Will Harris, head of marketing, Nokia Asia

"Trying to fully regulate the internet is absurd. For every branded website, there are probably 100,000 social media sites that are almost impossible to control. And it's to these sites that a lot of big brands are flocking.

"A lot of the activity on such sites will regulate itself. You can't dupe today's consumers. And if you do something they don't like, you'll pay for it. Look what happened to Ryanair.

"Companies making false claims online should be more frightened that consumers will get them, not the ASA."

DIGITAL AGENCY HEAD - Mark Cridge, chief executive, glue London

"The line between online editorial content and commercial communication is a very loosely drawn one. And if agencies can't control what happens online, how much more difficult will it be for the ASA? What's more, if there's no media spend, the co-operation of YouTube and Google will be very important to ensure ASA rulings are complied with.

"Of course, sanctions could be applied against wrongdoers in other areas. But is it right you should be penalised in one medium for something you've done in another?

"This problem isn't going to get easier; that's why the ASA must deal with it properly. Otherwise, it will be seen as irrelevant."

REGULATORY SPECIALIST - Nick Stringer, director of regulatory affairs, Internet Advertising Bureau

"We think that effective policing of the internet is achievable, but it's not going to be easy. That's why we're deploying the sector's best thinkers to help us get it right.

"It's vitally important that digital advertisers and internet users are assured that the same protection applies to activities in social media just as it does in paid-for digital advertising. But we have to be clear about where marketing communication ends and freedom of speech begins.

"Obviously, internet advertising is different from other forms where the media owner is the 'gatekeeper'. But it doesn't mean we can't have sanctions and that they can't be robust."

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