Written evidence submitted by Gumtree UK

 

Introduction

 

Gumtree welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Call for Evidence. We are grateful to the Committee for its work in scrutinising the Bill and ensuring that this important piece of legislation achieves all its intended aims.

 

As the number one classifieds website and app in the UK, hosting approximately 1.9 million classifieds listings live on the platform at any given time, Gumtree recognises the importance of online safety. We share the Government’s ambition to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online and have established rigorous trust and safety measures on our platform, the main objectives of which are to stop illegal/harmful content and bad actors.

 

Through extensive user education and clearly outlined posting policies, we always aim to prevent such content from appearing on our site in the first place. However, we also recognise the importance of enforcement when it does appear. For this reason, we have established several successful collaborations with UK authorities – from law enforcement to regulators – with the express purpose of supporting their enforcement efforts and ensuring that our platform is a safe place for our community. Gumtree is generally a low-risk platform where there is only a very limited risk of users being exposed to illegal or harmful content.

 

However, we recognise that there has been an increase in illegal and harmful material online. Most recently, for example, with the rise of phishing attacks during the pandemic. We believe that a healthy digital economy relies on trust and safety, and so our response focuses on the question:

 

Will the proposed legislation help to deliver the policy aim of using digital technologies and services to support the UK’s economic growth? Will it support a more inclusive, competitive, and innovative future digital economy?

 

Given the breadth of the question, we have used it to discuss more specific elements of the draft Bill, including age assurance and the inclusion of financial scams within the scope of the Bill.

 

Response

 

Will the proposed legislation help to deliver the policy aim of using digital technologies and services to support the UK’s economic growth? Will it support a more inclusive, competitive, and innovative future digital economy?

 

Gumtree has a strong business interest in eliminating bad actors from our platform, and we have built a strong and clearly signposted reporting function that allows anyone who thinks they may have come anything illegal or in breach of our posting policies to report it to us immediately. We also have a dedicated trust and safety team who will take the necessary action. This could include removing adverts and blocking offending users, as well as supporting law enforcement in any investigations. We act very swiftly on such reports, typically within between 4 to 12 hours. In case of repeat offenders, we can block the user account and associated accounts, within the limits which our current technologies allow.

 

We also have strict and enforced policies in place regarding what can/cannot be listed via Gumtree. Unsafe or illegal goods are prohibited from being listed on our platform, and we have extensive user education on the site focusing on this. We will always investigate and remove any listings that advertise unsafe or illegal goods. The same applies to fraudulent adverts.

 

The above should demonstrate the steps that Gumtree has already taken to reduce the number of negative interactions on our platform and ensure that bad actors are held to account. One of the reasons our platform is so popular with both buyers and sellers is that it remains easy-to-use while retaining the key safety features that enable transactions between them to be made with confidence. As such, we believe there are certain elements of the Bill that will prove detrimental to consumers, small businesses, and sole traders; and, by extension, the digital economy as a whole:

 

1)      Age assurance platform design

 

The Draft Online Safety Bill and the more recently published Government ‘Safer Platform Checklist’ guidance requests that online platforms design an age-appropriate experience for children through tools such as age assurance and verification. While Gumtree fully shares the draft Bill’s aim to create a safer internet experience for children, the deployment of age assurance technology on online classifieds marketplaces could have unintended and potentially serious consequences for consumers and SMEs – and as a result, the UK economy as a whole.

A House of Commons briefing report found that last year, there were 6 million SMEs in the UK. This accounts for over 99% of all businesses. There were also 5.7 million microbusinesses in the UK in 2020, accounting for 96% of all businesses. Along with ordinary people trying to offload a product they no longer need, SMEs and microbusinesses are the organisations that rely on platforms like Gumtree to sell their products or services.

We believe that requiring consumers to share personal information with other providers as a prerequisite for using our platform could be detrimental to hard-working people who have often spent years building a successful product or service offering.

Previous conversations that Gumtree has had with the NSPCC have demonstrated that our platform is low risk, so any expectation to redesign our platform seems disproportionate. Online classifieds platforms function solely as buying and selling platforms for physical goods and services. We have an existing policy that prohibits the use of the site by under 16s. While we have seen occasional bad actors in some markets abusing our chat functionality for inappropriate purposes, our community flags those to us so we can take the necessary action (e.g. block the account, block chat conversations and work with law enforcement to secure convictions). One incident of this type is too many, but Gumtree is generally low risk.

We would also urge the committee to consider the positive impact of classifieds marketplaces on the environment. By focusing on the local community and giving new life to used items, instead of buying new, classifieds marketplaces like Gumtree contribute to preventing waste generation and extending the lifespan of products. This positions classifieds platforms at the top of the waste hierarchy, thanks to the role they play in the reuse of products.

Given that the Environment Bill legally obliges policymakers to have due regard to the environmental principles policy statement when choosing policy options, we urge policymakers to recognise the significant carbon emissions associated with second-hand shopping. In 2020, for example, 27% of Brits purchased a book second-hand – making for a saving of 36.8 thousand tonnes of carbon. As we have seen in recent months, a healthy environment and a strong economy should be viewed as twinned objectives: we think a healthy re-commerce sector contributes to both.

2)      Financial scams and the scope of the draft Bill

 

We look forward to the Government’s consultation on online advertising expected to be launched in the next quarter of this year.

We understand stakeholders’ justified concerns about the increase of paid-for adverts for financial scams accessed via search engines. These are often pension scams, as recognised by the Department for Work & Pensions Committee. It should be noted that financial scams have remained virtually non-existent on our platform since its inception.

Fraud is a scourge that, when it does rarely happen on our platform, impacts our users, and reduces the chance of them using our platform again. We would therefore fully support a review of how advertising listings are regulated in this country and will be submitting our thoughts to DCMS on this issue in due course. We do not, however, believe that the Online Safety Bill is the best vehicle by which to pursue change in the context of fraudulent adverts/listings.

This issue links back to the scope of the Bill more widely. Due to varied interpretations, the same type of content may be considered illegal, legal but harmful or legal and not harmful. A clear definition of illegal content in national law would allow for more rapid and effective action. Because the management of harmful content or activity requires nuance, a specific focus on the management of illegal content and activity would help to avoid breaches of fundamental rights in more context-specific cases.

 

Therefore, it is not reasonable to put the burden on platforms of determining what is harmful. Acting on information and removing content that is actually legal (but harmful in the opinion of some), could open up businesses to claims or complaints by users for falsely removing their (legal) content. As an online classifieds platform for everyone we try to be neutral, take the law as guidance and to generally allow people to trade in what is legal.

 

Conclusion

 

Gumtree recognises the need for online platforms to ensure that there are appropriate systems and processes to reduce the presence of illegal content and activity. We believe that any regulation imposed on low-risk platforms – particularly if they make a genuine contribution to consumers, small businesses and the environment – should be carefully considered for unintended consequences and proportionality.

 

The Draft Online Safety Bill is totemic in its approach. This ambition is welcomed, but both the Bill itself and the codes in development by Ofcom must avoid a ‘one-size fits all’ approach when it comes to platforms outside of Category 1. The Government has clearly stated its ambition to level up the United Kingdom, but any stifling of our digital economy could have the opposite effect on many who have spent the past year upskilling and developing side businesses on e-commerce and online platforms, while also discouraging the thousands of UK shoppers who have become more sympathetic to the idea of buying second-hand since the pandemic.

28 September 2021