U.K. Advertising Regulators to Police Websites With the Help of ... Google

Other Than Acting as a Funding Source, the Search Giant's Role Is Unclear

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- In an unusual and possibly controversial move for the search giant, Google has teamed up with the Advertising Standards Authority to police marketers' activities on websites in the U.K.

The ASA regulates advertising in traditional media, direct marketing and sales promotion. It is also responsible for digital advertising that is marketed directly to consumers, including e-mails, viral videos and banner ads.

But until now marketers' own websites have not come under the jurisdiction of the ASA, leaving a glaring gap in the system. There have been complaints that marketers are able to make claims on their websites -- and on blogs and social media -- that would be a clear breach of ASA codes if made in other media.

Jo Farmer, a partner at media law firm Lewis Silkin, said, "It has been a thorn in the side for the ASA that company websites have not come under their remit. The problem has been funding -- the internet is large, and the ASA has to be able to stand by [its codes]."

Google has stepped in to provide funding, but the company's role in the regulation process is unclear. "What will they do?" Ms Farmer asked. "Will they help police the web? Will they start a search engine optimization blacklist for offenders? Google has tried to stay outside arguments on how far self-regulation of advertising should go, but if self-regulation doesn't work then it'll be like the Wild West. Governments will step in to regulate and create penalties. Nobody wants that."

It seems that Google has been persuaded to help regulate internet marketing in order to avoid being regulated against itself. Details of the ASA's new powers are not year clear, and it will be a few weeks before they are finalized and made public. Ms. Farmer added, "There has been a gap, and we know it will be closed, but how? Will the ASA just cover websites hosted in the U.K.? Or sites aimed at U.K. consumers?"

ASA chairman Lord Smith of Finsbury said in a statement, "The landmark agreement, once agreed, will considerably enhance online consumer protection."

The changes are expected to come into force in the second half of 2010.

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