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Ministry plans advertising law amendment to reflect advent of social media 'influencers'

Facebook logo displayed on smartphone.
Facebook logo displayed on smartphone. Source: Pixabay

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is developing a bill which would amend legislation to regulate the activities of social media influencers, particularly with regard to those who advertise alcohol, gambling and other products and services which carry a minimum age limit or are of general social concern.

The bill should it enter into law would also regulate advertising content, including for alcohol, across channels, in a direction which will not spell a relaxation of any restrictions.

The relevant legislation, the Advertising Act, is 15 years old meaning it predates the widespread use of social media platforms which have become an ever-present in today's world.

Merike Koppel, head of business environment at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, said: "We want to make the law clearer, easier to understand and more up-to-date," to reflect these seismic changes.

The existing legislation is also more media-specific than is appropriate in today's world, she added.

"The regulation of old channels is not appropriate in the context of social media. In our opinion, it is more 'future-proof' to regulate content in a channel-neutral manner."

Stating terms more clearly and introducing overlooked areas is also a requirement, Koppel said, while the rise and rise of social media "influencers" also needs addressing.

"For example, influencers were an unknown phenomenon when the current law was drafted, but at the same time in our present-day world, they can be very high-profile individuals, while their actions actually do influence things too. As a result, plenty of questions have arisen for the influencers themselves [to answer], but equally supervisory authorities want a solid basis on how to comprehend, regulate and evaluate these influential individuals," Koppel continued.

"We want to fulfill the goal so that the interests of vulnerable target groups and consumers are protected, while still allowing firms the opportunity to market their products and services," Koppel went on.

Koppel stressed that the ministry's intent is not to make the law on advertising in Estonia any more lenient than it currently is, but rather to make it clearer and more up-to-date, so as to meet the current market situation.

On the other hand, Koppel noted there are not out-of-the-box solutions on the table as yet; she added that nuances include influencers who are aware they have a large following of minors and who thus should not advertise alcoholic drinks, but at the same time if the same influencer hosts a podcast intended for an adult audience, this may require a different approach.

Ministry official: No Lithuania-style alcohol advertising blanket ban on the cards

In any case no blanket ban on advertising alcohol, as has happened in Lithuania, is no the table – Koppel noted the expected benefits here did not materialize, as they had also failed to do in Latvia, in the case of bans on the advertising of various financial products and services.

This needs to be balanced with calls for not relying too much on companies, platforms, channels and sites self-regulating.

Lauri Beekman, head of Estonian temperance organization the Eesti Karskusliit, the Estonian temperance association, said the ministry's role here is not to resolve the matter purely from a business perspective, but to invite all interested parties to the table to get their opinions and viewpoints.

Beekman claims that his and other NGOs in Estonia support a Lithuania-style alcohol ad ban.

One change which has already been put in place is the significant raising of maximum fines for violations of the Advertising Act, Merike Koppel said.

From November, the ceiling has been €400,000, in respect of legal entities, compared with €50,000 before.

This applies to violations of regulations on not only alcohol advertising but also gambling and consumer credit advertising, and in cases of false advertising, Koppel said.

In practice, no large fines have yet been issued, as all case have been resolved ahead of this being required, she said.

The Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) is the relevant authority here.

Fines are a last resort for persistent offenders, and in fact the TTJA has not issued any in recent years, in respect of Advertising Act infringements, she said.

The economic affairs ministry is in the process of formalizing its intention to develop an amendment to the act and plans this month to publish the proposals gathered via working groups over a two-year period, with a view to them meeting with stakeholders.

This will include the very definition of what an influencer is, in addition to examining the tools supervisory authorities have to hand – which Koppel said are currently inadequate.

The facility to re-watch TV shows at a time other than their original broadcast time is also an issue – if commercial breaks are an integral part of the show and include, for instance, alcohol ads.

Under current law, these are banned between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., but as noted a broadcast may be viewed during this time.

Furthermore, social media is "on" 24/7 in any case, so this needs addressing too, Koppel said.

EU legislation including that relating to the Digital Services Act will also be in view.

Koppel reiterated that domestic law will not become more lenient as a result of the changes.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel

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