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The online safety bill needs to cover fraud. Why doesn’t it?

·4-min read

“It is frankly absurd that the Financial Conduct Authority is paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to Google to warn consumers against investment advertisements from which Google is already receiving millions in revenue,” said Charles Randell, the chair of the chief financial regulator, last year.

Absolutely right – the position is genuinely ludicrous. It would clearly be better to prevent financial scammers’ poisonous promotions from appearing at all. As Randell put it, there should be a legal framework “to stop social media platforms and search engines from promoting unsuitable investments, including scams, to ordinary retail consumers”.

And the good news – or so you might think – is that the online safety bill is due to be introduced in the Queen’s speech next week. It would seem the perfect vehicle to make the tech companies legally responsible for combating the damage of scam promotions. Action Fraud calculates UK savers were cheated out of £1.7bn last year, so the numbers are significant.

But here’s the problem: as things stand, the government has no intention of doing the bleedin’ obvious. The cock-up theory says the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is sponsoring the bill, doesn’t want to tread on the toes of the Home Office, which is in charge of tackling fraud. The conspiracy theory sees the lobbying power of the technology companies at work.

Google, incidentally, probably isn’t the worst offender. It has at least responded to pressure by adopting a few “advertiser verification” measures. But, as Nikhil Rathi, the chief executive of the FCA, told MPs in March, a voluntary “by negotiation” approach takes time and ends up being inconsistent. The FCA has been clear: online fraud should be included in an online safety bill. Seventeen other organisations agree, ranging from Which? to the City of London police to the Investment Association. Support could hardly be broader.

The infuriating aspect is that scam adverts are easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. They usually offer bonds with implausibly high rates of interest. Scammers also tend to mimic a well-known brand by tweaking the URL and email addresses. But, since technology is supposed to be good at sifting such details, the tech firms have no excuse for letting so much crud get through.

Ministers need to rethink and get themselves coordinated. Voluntary measures have failed. The legal route is the one to take.

Imaginative thinking needed on vaccines

Sadly, Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, is probably right: waiving patents on Covid vaccines, an idea now backed by the Biden administration, would not produce a rapid increase in supplies of the product.

He thinks a boost wouldn’t happen for at least 18 months, and one can understand why. There simply isn’t vaccine manufacturing capacity lying idle around the world, especially not of its mRNA variety. Bill Gates made the same point recently. Other constraints include the flow of raw materials and technical knowhow. Having access to the recipe only gets you so far.

Does that mean Biden’s surprising change of stance is pointless, or misguided? No, not necessarily. Political signals also matter. If the threat of loss of patents puts pressure on producers to sign more licensing deals and share more technical expertise, the pace of production may quicken a little – eventually.

While it would be hard to accuse either Pfizer or Moderna of being sluggish currently (they expect to make 3bn and 800m doses respectively this year, figures that would have seemed astonishing even six months ago), AstraZeneca’s licensing model offers an interesting alternative.

The UK company has an impressive 20 manufacturing partners in 15 countries. Maybe the same model wouldn’t work for Pfizer and Moderna, but a sharp prod from the White House is one way to encourage imaginative thinking in boardrooms. If companies have better ideas than temporary patent waivers, let’s hear them.

What does it take for a pay report to be rejected?

Indivior got its way – 62% backing from shareholders for a pay report that approved $1.65m (£1.2m) in bonus shares to a former chief executive who was sentenced to six months in prison in the US. The loyal investors will have their reasons but the rest of us can merely wonder what it takes for a pay report to receive a thumbs-down. This current AGM season, billed as a moment of rebellion on pay, has turned out limply – again.

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