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Expert sees legal dilemma with inappropriate advertising

Stephan Dreyer, Senior Researcher Media Law & Media Governance Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research at the University of Hamburg [Source: Hans Bredow Institute]

“There are enough legal regulations as well as guidelines and specifications for advertising self-monitoring and the app marketplace provider,” says media law expert Stephan Dreyer from the Hans Bredow Institute with a view to inappropriate advertising in digital offerings. He appeals to the parents of affected children to report individual cases using screen shots.

According to media reports, parents often complain about age-inappropriate advertising in games or on video platforms on the Internet. To whom should affected persons turn in such a case? For complaints about possibly not age-appropriate contents of advertising insertions in online media, the state media authorities are regularly available as the responsible (tele)media supervisory authority. The complaints offices of the FSM and eco also accept such information. For specific complaints about advertising content, you can also contact the German Advertising Council. In the case of erroneously concluded contracts or payments due to misleading advertising, the advisory services of the consumer protection centres are the right contact points. If parents notice age-inadequate advertising in offers that are specifically aimed at children, a complaint to the app marketplace provider may also help. For children’s apps, the platforms provide for very restrictive requirements in terms of advertising fade-ins and advertising content.

What do you recommend parents to do to protect their children from age-inappropriate advertising on digital platforms? This is not an easy task, as children often use offers and games that are not aimed exclusively at children. In addition, age-inappropriate advertising can also be displayed when the child is online with an adult’s terminal. Often only a whole-or-not approach can help here: when surfing the Internet with laptops or PCs, AdBlockers or advertising filters that parents can activate or install in the browser help. Parents must be aware, however, that this makes it more difficult for their own child to learn how to recognize advertising and how to deal with it critically and in a differentiated way. With mobile devices such as smartphones or laptops, advertising blockers are also difficult to use in practice, especially with regard to in-app or in-game advertising. In the case of very young children, parents should ensure that the child only uses apps and games that do not require external advertising or special editorial support – although these are usually subject to a fee.

What should the advertising industry do? The advertising industry, serious advertising networks and also the providers of app marketplaces are already doing a lot, but they are in a legal dilemma: On the one hand, they must not form child-friendly segments in the profiling of users due to the intention of a proper self-commitment, i.e. the automated recognition of minors on the basis of their usage behaviour is prohibited with a view to data protection. On the other hand, they – and their parents and children – have a strong interest in ensuring that children see advertising content appropriate to their age that does not overtax them or frighten or disturb them. The remedy would be a better recognisability of generally underage or in particular very young online users in order not to play out advertisements that are primarily aimed at adults in terms of design or the advertised product. However, age-related identifiers that can be read out by third parties are also highly problematic under data protection law and are at least ambivalent from the point of view of the protection of minors in the media.

Do you see a need to regulate age-inadequate advertising in the digital world? No, there are plenty of regulations and guidelines for advertising self-monitoring and app marketplace providers. Of course, there is always room for improvement in the implementation of these rules – but here the responsible authorities and institutions are dependent on the parents’ complaints. Advertising content is increasingly being personalized and played out on a profile basis, so that systematic monitoring appears to be out of the question. Only the reference – at best documented with a screenshot or a recording – to a certain, not age-appropriate advertisement in a certain app or a certain game can get the supervisor to deal with the facts.

In the run-up to such individual cases, a better sensitization of the advertising bookers during targeting as well as an improvement of the knowledge level of in particular inexperienced app and game developers, who may easily integrate less serious advertising networks into the app or game, will help. However, these are tasks that the online advertising industry must take into its own hands in a concerted manner, possibly via self-regulatory institutions or associations. In the medium term, approaches can help which, similar to the do-not-track approach, allow parents to set a technical note on the terminal device for user autonomy, stating that questionable adult advertising should not be displayed on the terminal device.

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Christina Cherry
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