Exclusive-Google aims to improve spotty enforcement of children's ads policy

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FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured outside a Google office near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California
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By Paresh Dave

(Reuters) - Alphabet Inc's Google said this week it would immediately improve enforcement of an age-sensitive ad policy after Reuters found ads for sex toys, liquor and high-risk investments in its search engine that should have been blocked under its efforts to comply with UK regulations.

Britain started enforcing regulations last September aimed at protecting children from being tracked online. Google in response began modifying settings across its services in Europe and elsewhere for users younger than 18 years. Among the measures it had touted in August was "expanding safeguards to prevent age-sensitive ad categories from being shown to teens."

Specifically, the search giant began using automated tools to stop ads related to categories such as alcohol, gambling and prescription drugs from being shown to people who are not logged in to a Google account or confirmed to be at least 18.

Tech companies face a growing challenge with policing their sprawling services, and, according to posts on online advertising forums and two advertisers, Google's enforcement has been spotty.

The advertisers, who sought anonymity out of fear of retribution from the tech company, said they have been frustrated about significant lost sales due to Google's search engine correctly blocking their ads from signed-out users while erroneously allowing their competitors' ads.

Ads were shown in the UK to signed-out users last week for leveraged trading, cholesterol medication, adult toy retailers and a major grocer promoting a vodka product, Reuters found.

"We have policies in place that limit where we show certain age-sensitive ad categories," Google said. "The ads in question were mislabeled and in this instance should have been restricted from serving. We are taking immediate steps to address this issue."

It declined to elaborate on the adjustments.

Google advertising rivals such as Meta Platforms Inc's Facebook and Microsoft Corp either ban many categories of age-sensitive ads altogether or have put the onus on advertisers to target their ads in ways that limit exposure to minors. Microsoft declined to comment, and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.

The UK Children's Code requires online services to meet 15 design and privacy standards to protect children, such as limiting collection of their location and other personal information. Google said its filtering of age-sensitive ads is core to its compliance with the code.

Advocacy group 5Rights Foundation, which campaigned for the regulation and reviewed the findings by Reuters, said tech companies should regularly publish internal research on how well they are living up to the code and their own policies.

"We must be wary of ‘safety washing,'" 5Rights said. "Tech companies need to back up their claims with action, and demonstrate how they are complying with regulations, particularly in the early stages of implementation."

Google did not respond to the comments. The company declined to share detailed information with Reuters about how often it had failed to block age-sensitive ads.

The UK Information Commissioner's Office said in November it had reached out to Google, Apple Inc and other companies in social media, streaming and gaming to review their conformance to the code. The review is ongoing, the privacy regulator told Reuters.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave in Oakland, Calif.; Editing by Kenneth Li, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Matthew Lewis)

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