'Middle-ground' regulation for online firms?

12 May 2017  |  David Pidgeon 
'Middle-ground' regulation for online firms?

The debate about online ad regulation was raised again this week - this time by the journalist who exposed how brands were inadvertently 'funding terror' through extremist YouTube videos.

Alexi Mostrous, The Times' head of investigations, took to the stage at the Radiocentre's Tuning In conference to claim that regulation had failed to catch up with current technologies, and that there was scope for more "creative thinking" about how Internet firms can ensure they remain both socially valuable and responsible.

"Outside of the fairly narrow debate about programmatic, the relationship between Internet companies and regulation and what we do about it as a society is only going to grow more heated," Mostrous said on Thursday (11 May).

"It seems to me that Google and Facebook's profit motives, and their whole set-up as companies, is predicated on expansion. The more they expand the more influence they have and the more profit they make. That inherent goal seems to be quite contradictory to the idea of safe-guarding [brands and users] and the idea of regulatory controls."

Mostrous added that there is a "structural tension" that is not going to go away any time soon, but that a "middle ground" for effective regulation should be given pause for thought.

"If Facebook hosts a jihadist video, or a bomb-making video, maybe it should not be held to account in the same way as The Times would if it published it on its website, but maybe it should be held liable if it was told about that video and yet failed to take it down within a reasonable time-frame," he said.

"I think there is quite a lot of scope for creative thinking about how to make sure that companies like Google and Facebook can ensure the socially very valuable work they're doing, but within a safer environment."

The idea that regulation will be imposed on adland if it fails to clean-up its act has been mulled in public several times since The Times story broke in February.

In March the Guardian's chief revenue officer, Hamish Nicklin, warned that if the industry fails to curb the problems, then it could face regulation.

This was followed by Chris Clarke, chief creative officer at DigitasLBi, Publicis' global marketing and tech agency, who sounded similar warnings during Ad Week Europe in April.

Clarke said it was "palpably clear" that Google, Facebook and the wider industry is unable to regulate itself and that it was only a matter of time before the Government intervened.

However, the IAB, whose stakeholders include Google and Facebook, said on Thursday that self-regulation was the preferred option and that given both firms have built wildly successful businesses through innovation, they are best-placed to find a solution.

The IAB's views tally with those of ISBA - the voice of UK advertisers - which has previously said the UK ad industry has a long history of self-regulation that has been so successful it has been exported elsewhere around the world. ISBA argues that same tradition should now continue, with the help of the Digital Standards Trading Group.

Mostrous added that during his investigations into the dodgy advertising, he was shocked that Google would unwittingly help him find the extremist material he was searching for.

"We were helped in the investigation by Google's own algorithms - once you start looking for jihadi content, after a little bit of time, it suggested it to you. You didn't have to search for it anymore."

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