Olga Finkel has recently been interviewed by the Malta Business Review for the cover story of the December 2014 issue. The story was entitled Cultivating Relationships, where Olga talks about the iGaming trends in Malta, the challenges that the industry faces and gave an insight for 2015 and beyond.
MBR: As a lawyer, how did you become interested in high-tech and the gaming industry?
OF: Prior to studying law, I completed a Master’s degree in IT and Economics and for almost 10 years worked in the IT industry, as well as lectured Computer Science. Remote gaming, as other e-commerce businesses, is an IT-intensive industry, so upon graduating as a lawyer, my keen interest in, and understanding of IT naturally led me to focus more on legal areas that leverage my unique skillset as a lawyer with an IT background. My in-depth background in IT and economics is invaluable up to this day, as I can understand not only the legal, but also the underlying technical aspects behind complex and often technology-intensive issues and grasp their business implications.
MBR: You are listed by Who’s Who Legal as a leading global IT lawyer, top-ranked by Chambers & Partners as global gaming lawyer, and widely regarded as an expert in gambling and technology law. Can you tell us about how all this came into being together with WH Partners?
OF: I firmly believe that the only way to do anything is to do it well; and this can only be achieved if you do things that you enjoy with dedication, passion and competence. So when I set about founding WH Partners, I wanted to develop a boutique firm that would focus on industries which are ICT-intensive, that are dynamic and creative. Even more importantly, my goal was to develop a firm that would not just provide sound legal advice to clients in our focus industries, but also assist them in navigating complex issues in the ever-changing business environment and support them in their decision making process. It was always, and will remain, key for us to thoroughly understand and take keen interest in our clients’ business, dedicating our time to fully comprehend their needs, which help us ensure that our clients achieve their goals. We have built our approach on our values, which place the client’s business at the centre. Our approach combines an in-depth grasp of our clients’ business with a result-oriented focus and a strong dose of enthusiasm and perseverance. We believe that the quality of our work reflects our values, whether in advice on the legal aspects of a market entry strategy, conducting due diligence on a target asset in an acquisition, or putting forward alternatives for the structuring of a portfolio of intellectual property rights. The above approach is practised by every member of our team, and I believe this is one of the reasons why we have consistently achieved top rankings in the past years as one of the leading specialists including in gambling and technology law.
MBR: Why is mobile gaming expected to become the new frontier of the gaming industry and what are the implications here?
OF: Rapid developments in technology are changing the way we communicate, share information, purchase goods, access entertainment, driven by consumers’ desire to have instant access to everything, everywhere. Gaming service is no exception. Mobile, as a channel of service consumption, accounts nowadays for almost 40% of revenue for many forward looking online gaming operators and this is expected to grow even higher. As gaming is a regulated industry, regulatory frameworks should ideally facilitate, but at least not hinder, this technological and market development. A technologyneutral regulatory framework which sets the compliance goals without limiting their implementation to any particular technology would achieve this aim. The Maltese legal framework, for instance, has a few provisions that work well for the web, but not for mobile channel and to my mind, should be amended. Just to give one example, the law currently requires that a player’s contact details must be verified. In web environment, this can take form of email verification, in mobile – mobile number verification, for example, by SMS. The law, however, only allows email verification. Often, it is such fine grain details that need to be looked at to optimise the regulatory framework for new channels. To be fair, our legal framework for gaming has been around for ten years and it was difficult to envisage back then how technology would develop. The Lotteries and Gaming Authority has announced that it is embarking on an exercise to ‘refresh’ the current framework to ‘future-proof’ it, which is very welcome news indeed.
MBR: Can you tell me how responsible gaming issues are addressed by operators?
OF: One of the main pillars of any proper gaming regulatory regime is the protection of players. Responsible gaming features are an essential part of this protection, and the Maltese regulations address these issues aptly. Gaming operators must have in place wagering and financial loss limits, self-exclusion mechanisms and other various means that enable operators to provide a safe and fun experience to players. Sometimes, I hear comments that operators, in principle, are against such measures as inhibitors of higher revenues. In reality, nothing can be further from the truth. Operators fully embrace and support responsible gaming measures, as not only they protect players, but also help operators. Operators want to have players who play responsibly and treat gaming as entertainment, which translates into longerlasting customer relationships and, therefore, higher benefit for players and operators alike. As a firm, we guide operators towards the correct implementation of responsible gaming features.
MBR: What impact do iGaming events such as MIGS and SIGMA have on the local industry?
OF: I think that the renewed interest in having top-quality iGaming events based in Malta has a very positive multiplier effect on the local gaming industry and all supporting services offered in Malta to the gaming industry, as well as making the local population more aware of the industry’s needs and benefits, achieving a tighter integration of existing companies with their host country.
MBR: What are the challenges for online gaming in Europe? How does the fragmentation of the European market affect Malta-based operators?
OF: The fragmentation of the European market, in the sense that operators must obtain multiple licences in various European countries to be able to service those geographical markets, poses a number of challenges to all online gaming operators as they face multiple and sometimes conflicting compliance issues on legal, technical and financial fronts. Certain quota mechanisms and restrictive conditions that are being imposed by some Member States go against the EU law principles. Some countries have chosen to use technical, legal and responsible gaming concerns as justification, where in reality increasing tax revenues is the real driver. Multiple and disjoint compliance requirements drive up the costs significantly, thus squeezing the margins. Competition from unauthorised out-of-EU based operators who are not subject to these increased costs and requirements, while often being inferior on player protection measures, also affect the EU-based businesses.
MBR: What are WH Partner’s objectives for 2015 and the near future?
OF: WH Partners is set to continue expanding organically as we add a wider range of expertise to our team. We expect to be involved in more M&A and FDI deals, and advise a wider range of high technology companies who share our entrepreneurial mindset. Our advice is well suited towards innovative companies and individuals who appreciate the fact that they can rely on our team to deliver practical solutions to their needs, which may be unique and truly cutting edge. To support this expansion we continue to add high-level expertise to our current 18-strong team.
MBR: How do you see the local gaming industry evolve in 2015 and beyond?
OF: We see the local gaming industry being more grown-up and main-stream. It is no longer niche, home-grown and frowned upon. The industry is a strong economic force, making a very significant contribution to this country, and must be respected and protected. Having a combination of various benefits and incentives provided to them in Malta, I believe remote gaming operators will continue to re-affirm their choice of Malta as their home base, despite the pressures from other jurisdictions. I envisage a wave of new companies to grow, as well as a new wave of mergers and consolidation, especially amongst the larger players.