UK’s AGA May Have Overreached in Latest Underage-Protection Crackdown

It’s time for a Saturday Morning Sermon, courtesy of actions taken this week by the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority against up to 43 UK-facing gambling operators. All of these operators were accused by the ASA of aiming gambling ads toward children, but… well… were they really? It’s a very troubling and touchy topic, a facet of the UK’s widespread crackdown on many different things connected to online gambling.

I’ll sample freely from the ASA’s press statement about the advertising crackdown, titled “Harnessing new technology to tackle irresponsible gambling ads targeted at children.” That’s quite a mouthful, to be sure. Let’s start with the opening two paragraphs:

We have used new monitoring technology in the form of child ‘avatars’ – online profiles which simulate children’s browsing activity – to identify ads that children see online. As a consequence, we have already taken action to ban ads from five gambling operators which were served to child avatars on children’s websites in clear breach of the UK Advertising Codes.

Over a two week monitoring period last year we identified ads by 43 gambling operators in non-logged-in, online environments. Five of those gambling operators, NetEnt Product Ltd (Vikings Video Slot), Evoke Gaming Ltd (RedBet), Multilotto UK Ltd, Platinum Gaming Ltd (Unibet) and Skill On Net Ltd (PlayOjo), broke the strict advertising rules which prohibit gambling ads being targeted at under-18s.

There are a couple of sleights-of-thought that may well be explainable, but that the ASA is willfully choosing not to explain. First, these avatars aren’t actually children; instead, they’re synthetic software constructs that supposedly mirror childrens’ surfing habits. Worse, everyone has to take the ASA’s word that these synthetic “children” are surfing sites that are predominantly targeted at youth, and the ASA omits mentioning which sites were so deemed, except for one very contestable instance. According to the ASA, they monitored “across 24 children’s websites and 20 open-access YouTube channels”.

I’m sorry, but “open-access You Tube channels” are not children’s websites, no matter how badly the ASA wants to make that argument. And without naming the other supposed “children” sites, the whole premise becomes an Emperor’s New Clothes tale designed to fit a nanny-stater’s dream.

I am absolutely for protecting underage consumers from gambling, but I’m not willing to see the entire internet crippled and censored just because some kids might visit a site. I’ve also, innumerable times over my decades on this planet, seen zealots wave the “children” flag to enact all sorts of unneeded censorship and restrictions. I’m not specifically accusing the ASA of doing that here, but the whole thing has a whiff of censorious overreach to it.

The concluding two paragraphs are also a bit troubling, especially the sendoff paragraph:

The gambling operators have accepted their ads broke the rules. In most instances, we were informed that the problems arose due to errors by third-party companies who served the campaigns on behalf of the operators. We have instructed the companies to take immediate action to review their online ads, ensure they are not served to web users aged below 18 years of age through the selection of media or context in which they appear and to put in place measures to ensure this does not happen again.

We are now exploring whether this monitoring and enforcement approach can be extended to logged-in environments like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.

Seriously, no. If it’s the ASA’s intent to censor all of social media and the entire internet to protect children from ever encountering anything from the “adult” world, it’s a massive fool’s errand. There’s a world of difference between preventing underage internet users from being able to gamble — a rightful and noble venture — and trying to pretend that the word “gamble” doesn’t exist.

The AGA ought to rethink some of this stuff, it says here. There are better and worthier ways to accomplish the greater good.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily respect the viewpoint of the owners of Flushdraw.

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