Robert Zammit has published an article in iNTERGAMINGi Issue 1 of 2015 entitled A step in the right direction.  Robert talks about the implications of recent online gambling recommendations issued by the European Commission.

As a result of the European Commission’s (EC) public consultation on its Green Paper on online gambling in the internal market of 2011 and its Communication of October 2012 where the EC proposed a series of actions which sought to respond to the regulatory, societal and technical challenges of the online gambling sector, the EC released on the 14 July 2014, a recommendation on the principles for the protection of consumers and players of online gambling services and for the prevention of minors from gambling online (Recommendations). Although the aim of the Recommendations is the safeguard of consumers in the online gambling sector, and does not aim to harmonize as yet the online gambling sector, it has still been considered by most stakeholders as a positive step in the right direction, even though a recommendation is not a binding instrument.

The Recommendations lay down the basic standards which remote gaming operators across Europe should be subject to for the protection of the consumers. These include the provision of information to all customers, the protection of minors, player registration and account management process, player activity and support, time out and self-exclusion mechanisms, and commercial communications, apart from suggestions on the education of players with respect to online gambling. With these Recommendations it is clear that the message that the EC wants to convey is that the online gambling business is an important sector to the European economy and safeguards should be placed in order to ensure that customers feel safe when accessing licensed online gaming sites, and reduce the move towards black markets. If properly implemented throughout the European Union, these Recommendations can result in a very effective tool to reduce some of these threats that have been affecting the legitimate online gambling services.

Most jurisdictions that opted to limit online gambling operators or enacted legislation to create a licensing regime for the online gambling sector, had given the main raison d’etre for their actions as being precisely the protection of the consumers and of minors. How genuine these jurisdictions’ claims were can only be assessed in how they will implement the Recommendations and how quickly these jurisdictions will collaborate and provide reports as per the Recommendations. Furthermore, with the publication of the Recommendations, jurisdictions will be in a more difficult position to the restrictions and non-recognition of operators already licensed in other jurisdictions which are compliant with the Recommendations.

Maltese operators in particular have welcomed these Recommendations since, on analysing the Recommendations and comparing them with the Remote Gaming Regulations, subsidiary legislation 438.04 (‘Malta Regulations’), in force in Malta, one immediately realises that the Malta Regulations are mostly in line with the Recommendations. This, shows how progressive the Malta Regulations were when enacted back in 2004. In fact most of the suggestions made in the Recommendations have been requirements for the obtaining of a Maltese remote gaming license since the inception of the Malta Regulations.

The Malta Regulations, in fact, cater for all the main points of the Recommendation. In some areas, Malta Regulations go even beyond what the Recommendations have provided.  This is due to the fact that the Malta Regulations aims were always the protection of the consumers, the assurance that the products provided were fair and transparent, the prevention of crime, corruption and money laundering, and the protection of minors and other vulnerable persons. Where the Malta Regulations did not provide specific provisions, the Malta Gaming Authority (MGA) issued guidelines and directives to ensure that the aims of the Malta Regulations are achieved. These include a directive in respect of the player liabilities and reporting, the advertising code, a charter of player’s rights and obligations, and licensing policies and procedures. Furthermore, the MGA have set up a player support department within the Authority and Responsible Gaming Foundation which is an independent entity from the MGA and its functions are the education and promotion of responsible gaming.

Nevertheless, the MGA should not stop there and should keep an active approach in refreshing the attitude towards responsible gaming, as it has in the last decade. The Responsible Gaming Foundation’s role will be crucial in the implementation of these Recommendations and ensuring that awareness and education are kept at the forefront of the gambling sector. It goes without saying that should the MGA consider updating the Malta Regulations, the Recommendations are to be kept at the centre of any new remote gaming regulating.

Maltese operators should not expect any requests to undergo major overhaul to their operations, and should rest easy knowing that the Malta Regulations are in line with these Recommendations. However, Maltese operators would also keep an active approach and focus on refining their responsible gaming programme and where available implement additional safeguards and features with an eye on these Recommendations.

Stakeholders all over the European Union are now hoping that these Recommendations are not just an isolated incident and will cause a ripple effect and as a consequence mutual recognition of licenses, or at least, the reduction of compliance requirements, will be the consequential next step. This is however something which needs more than mere ‘soft’ law from the EC, and a wider collaboration between Member States. It remains to be seen how and when the Member States will implement these proposals and the outcomes which these Recommendations will result in. In my view these Recommendations are the first step towards the laying out of common standards across the EU for player protection. However, how much impact it will have on the ultimate harmonization of gaming law throughout the EU is too early to foresee.

Unfortunately considering the time frames given in the Recommendations for the implementation and the reporting to the EC by the different Member States, we will not see any major development overnight. Until then, the Recommendations can be seen as a useful tool for both Member States and operators which should be used in defining the responsible gaming parameters of jurisdictions and responsible gaming programmes of operators.