Are you ready for new online advertising rules?

The ongoing Wikileaks debate has focussed attention on how unregulated the internet can be – but for UK businesses, it's about to get much more regulated, in a development which seems to have received little publicity, but which could have an impact on just about every company.

From March next year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the organisation responsible for regulating advertising in the UK, is extending its role to further protect consumers online.

This means that most digital marketing – including companies' own websites, as well as social media such as Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, will now need to conform to the 'legal, decent, honest and truthful' criteria which already apply to other forms of advertising.

Up until now it has not been clear where consumers can complain about online activity which does not meet those standards.

Currently, only some digital activities are under ASA regulation, including emails, SMS, Adwords and Facebooks ads.

So it makes a lot of sense to have all mainstream marketing communications under one regulatory framework. We should view this as a positive step for consumers and marketers alike, giving everyone clarity and consistency.

Well, almost. As with so much online, there are some blurry lines. For example, if you host user-generated comment (for example a discussion forum or Facebook wall), it is not necessarily covered under the new ASA remit; however, if you moderate the forum and selectively promote posts, then they will be covered by the new regulatory regime.

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This sounds confusing, but the ASA has a good reputation for pragmatism in judging content and context, and the situation will become clearer. But there will be many of these types of tensions to resolve in the early days.

The ASA says that it is well placed to accommodate the new development.

It already receives many complaints about websites and social media, although it currently has to turn them away – I am told that this has helped it judge and plan for the additional workload.

For businesses involved with digital marketing – and who should already be aware of current ASA reach – there is nothing to fear, but there is a need to plan for the change, so that you understand the rules and can apply them effectively by March.

The ASA has made it clear that it is developing some neat new digital sanctions for persistent offenders, so these are regulations with teeth.

Digital marketing is such a core channel for most businesses that it is vital that they are prepared for the new regulatory regime – so understanding the new rules and making sure you are compliant should be a priority.

Mark Harvey is managing director of multi-disciplinary marketing communications agency Shorthose Russell;