Anti-gaming sentiment continues to focus on potential harm at venues, while little attention is given to the growing spectre – and potential usurper – seen in illegal online gaming, despite the failure of its prohibition.
The Interactive Gambling Act of 2001 made it illegal to provide internet-based casino-style gambling, including poker machines, to Australians.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) reports the blocking in the past five years of 354 illegal gambling websites and 21 marketing sites, but they remain easy for punters to locate and use.
ACMA blocking a particular site amount to little more than an annoyance for the service, and providers are able to easily avoid the hurdle. Importantly, providers based offshore, such as in the UK, act with impunity, knowing they will not be prosecuted.
An internet search quickly finds a myriad of websites offering online poker machine and casino games to Australians, including some featuring reviews by and specifically targeting Australians.
It is extremely difficult for authorities to calculate or even estimate how much money is spent playing online gambling, and by how many people in Australia. This may contribute to the lack of exposure.
In April 2020 – around a month after venues shut nationally for the COVID pandemic – a broad survey revealed a 67 per cent increase in online gambling in the first week after the closure of venues.
The research seemed to contravene previous assertations by gaming critics that gamblers would not seek online outlets if deprived of their access to clubs and pubs.
Prior to the pandemic, a national online survey reported by Independent Australia, which was part of the Second National Study of Interactive Gambling in Australia, found almost half (47.1pc) of interactive gamblers had used an illegal offshore gambling site in 2019.
It also found low awareness of the fact that such offshore sites were illegal.
Significantly, online gamblers were found to be nearly three times more likely than those in venues to be or become ‘problem’ gamblers, and amongst those experiencing harms, 27.5pc reported online poker machines were the biggest problem, followed by race betting (17.1pc), sports betting (15.3pc) and lotteries (13.9pc).
While Australia permits and regulates many types of gambling, including online wagering platforms, the vast majority of attention in reducing gambling harm has centred on the activities and accessibility to bricks-and-mortar options, notably pubs and clubs.
Representing casino whack-a-mole, the prohibition of web pokies was described by Dr Abul Rizvi, writing for Independent Australia, as an abject “failure”.
Some jurisdictions around the world have recognised the inherent problems with the technology and opted to regulate them instead, to better manage the risks for users.
This would require a national initiative in Australia, due to the technological challenges of the internet and geo-blocking, meaning it would need to be a Federal exercise in a traditionally state-ruled sector.