In a crackdown on misleading websites the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) introduced regulations that apply to website content on March 1st 2011. There are already strict rules in place relating to radio, TV and print media. But there were no such rules applied to website content (except for paid online advertising). Until now.
It is important that website providers understand the new regulations in order to create and foster compliant web content in the future.
How the rules apply
The new rules apply to adverts and any statement on a website intended to sell products or services. If a company makes claims about a product or service that it can’t substantiate, then it may lead to complaints.
For example, broadband providers recently received a lot of criticism for overstating throughput speeds. Some providers claimed broadband services can provide higher download speeds than they actually can. If such a statement is made on their websites, and they can’t substantiate it, then the ASA will make them change the content and may fine them.
Where do the new rules apply?
The new rules apply in the UK. They include any company registered in the UK, and any website with a .uk domain. Even if the person or company operating it resides outside the UK.
The new rules have been introduced because of the sheer volume of complaints the ASA receive about misleading websites. According to the BBC, 75% of the complaints received by the ASA are about misleading content.
Where the ASA will be checking:
- Advertisers’ marketing messages on their own websites
- Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under the advertiser’s control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter
- Marketing communications on all UK websites, regardless of sector, type of businesses or size of organisation.
What about free speech?
According to the ASA misleading content is the target, not our ability to speak freely. The new regulations apply to online marketing and advertising, not opinions. For example, if a website claims to provide a free service and then tries to charge you for it, this would breach the ASA rules. However, if you have a blog that expresses your opinions about current affairs, this would be outside of the ASA’s remit, even if certain people found it offensive. It’s about making false claims about your products or services, not emulating China.
Making false claims on Twitter or Facebook will also get you into trouble. In fact any website content under your control is subject to the new rules. This is important for any business that may be responsible for a company’s social media engagement as well as their website copy. While it’s necessary to properly manage all these mediums to get a message to the target market, it’s equally important to maintain content integrity.
What you can do
- Get your own house in order. Check over your current website copy and social media communications. If you’re breaching the regulations fix it quickly.
- Be aware of the new regulations. Ultimately content it is your responsibility.
- Check out the copy advice service provided by the Committee of Advertising Practice.
Although the UK is incredibly over regulated in many areas of life, this is one issue that did need addressing. There seems to be no shortage of UK websites that make false claims. Websites are often built by someones uncle’s son who showed talent in a web development unit at school, or a home operator with other things on their mind than regulatory compliance.
How effectively the ASA will be able to police the new rules remains to be seen. It depends on how well resourced they are to follow up on all the complaints.