As the OAP evolves, it’s imperative we work together

As the OAP evolves, it’s imperative we work together

The UK Government’s Online Advertising Programme is taking a targeted approach to tackling key areas of risk and has formalised industry collaboration via a new task force, signalling a positive step for the industry.

Last year I wrote a piece for The Media Leader calling on our industry to engage with the Online Advertising Programme to help shape the future of digital advertising regulation. My message was simple — if your business invests in or relies on digital marketing in any way, the OAP will impact you. At that point, we didn’t know much about how it would develop, but we did know that change was almost guaranteed. It would have been highly unlikely for the Government to launch such an all-encompassing and comprehensive regulatory review only to turn around and say, “as you were”.

But instead of seeing the OAP as a threat, we urged all parts of the supply chain to see it as an opportunity to create positive change and bolster the framework of industry-led regulation that responsible companies have invested significant amounts of time and resources in. At the IAB, our consultation response was rooted in demonstrating how self-regulation is delivering and we argued that the OAP should take a targeted approach to focus on the highest risk areas — particularly where illegal actors are involved.

The Government has now released its response to the consultation, giving us a clearer indication of how the next phase will develop. Here’s what we know.

A new Taskforce to formalise industry collaboration

The question I’m getting asked most at the moment is “so the OAP… is it good or bad for our industry?” As ever, it’s not that binary but in its simplest form the Government’s response to the OAP consultation is positive for two reasons: it formalises joint working between Government and the industry via a new Taskforce; and it is taking a targeted approach to address key areas of risk rather than a blanket approach that disregards what is already in place.

This is significant because it was by no means guaranteed that the Government would recognise the value and efficacy of industry-led regulation in protecting consumers and businesses (which, let’s face it, often gets interpreted as businesses setting their own rules — which is far from the case) or that it would seek to work with industry directly.

The minister-led Taskforce the Government has set up — which IAB UK is part of — aims to explore non-legislative action to address illegal harms arising from online advertising and increase the protection of children. It will look at how to improve the evidence base around illegal harms and draw on “existing innovative industry-sourced solutions, driving adoption and continued improvements.” This is the first time that the Government has formalised working with industry in this way, and our hope is that it will result in effective, proportionate and digital-first solutions that can evolve in line with our fast-moving industry.

Legislation is still on the table

However, this is only one half of the story, with new legislation also being proposed. While the Taskforce will be exploring the potential of non-legislative options, policy makers will also be putting together a package of legislative reforms that will then be open to wider consultation.

Here is where it gets a bit more complex. We agree that industry should be doing everything it can to detect and disrupt illegal ads — but effectively dealing with the bad actors behind those ads is not something that can be achieved by further regulating businesses that are already doing the right thing. To crack down on illegal advertising, the Government needs to ensure it delivers on the other side of the equation by enforcing the current laws against criminals who exploit digital advertising and consumers for their own gain.

If new legislation is introduced, it should be justified by the evidence available and the case needs to be made that it is the right solution for the issue. The Government acknowledges that more work is needed to understand the scale and impact of illegal harms and how industry-led regulation can address them — but by simultaneously announcing that it is developing legislative proposals, it appears to be pre-empting the outcome of that process.

The work begins now

Up until this point, our focus has been on supporting the Government’s review so that it is informed as possible about our industry and its existing regulatory framework. But that was just the start of the process and the work we collectively do now will define the evolution of digital advertising regulation and the future of the businesses that rely on it. The Government has stated that a key objective of the OAP “is to support innovation in the sector, so that it can maintain and build on the key role it plays at the centre of our digital economy and creative industries”. We fully support that aim and hope that the creation of the Taskforce sets a new precedent for Government/industry collaboration.

As the next phase of the OAP develops, our message to IAB members and the wider industry is that now is the time to take action. Our joint focus should be on demonstrating how we can address the issues raised via collaboration and innovation. Your input will be essential to producing effective solutions and we’ll be working with our members over the coming months to ensure we step up to the challenge.

Christie Dennehy-Neil is head of Policy & Regulatory Affairs at IAB UK

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