Editorial: Forget web policing, the system's over-run as it is

The Office of Fair Trading has long been the "teeth" of the ad industry's watchdog via its power to take legal action against rogue advertisers referred to it for persistently flouting the rules.

Now Ryanair, fired up by huge amounts of righteous indignation, wants the OFT to investigate the Advertising Standards Authority, which it accuses of a "catalogue of maladministration, bias and incompetence".

This follows a series of ASA rulings against the budget airline for alleged misleading and factually incorrect advertising. It's unlikely that Christopher Graham, the ASA's director-general, will lose any sleep over Ryanair's latest rant. Sooner or later, it will have to toe the line or end up in court. The problem is that the OFT's wheels grind slowly, giving Ryanair ample opportunity for further mischief-making and more free publicity before it gets brought to heel.

Every year or so, a Ryanair-type company comes along. Run by thrusting entrepreneurs, they like nothing better than to present themselves as consumer champions ready to defy authority on their customers' behalf. Benetton and French Connection are among those who have sparred with the ASA in the past. Looking back, such run-ins seem more like rites of passage that such operations have to undergo on the way to becoming commercially mature. It's likely that Ryanair will calm down as it grows older and wiser.

However, its juvenile behaviour does throw the spotlight on the OFT's ability to act quickly on an ASA referral. Even though it has so few cases referred to it by the ASA, the OFT can take an age to decide what action - if any - it will take.

If the system is already strained by a handful of referrals, what will happen if and when the ASA's remit to police the internet is extended? The number of dodgy characters offering goods and services on the internet far exceeds those in any other media. And it's a safe bet that few will heed an ASA ruling against them. How will the OFT cope if a trickle of referrals becomes a flood?