The government is set to significantly extend online censorship in an effort to prop up the Howard government’s failed online gambling ban, which is costing Australia millions in tax revenue and driving gamblers to unregulated and dangerous offshore sites.
In April, the government announced its response to a review of the Interactive Gambling Act (IGA) conducted by former New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell, and on the weekend re-announced it would be pushing ahead with legislation, although despite promises it doesn’t appear to have “unveiled” the specific bill yet. The substance of the bill will involve:
- trying to ban offshore gambling sites in Australia by telling home-country regulators that they are banned in Australia;
- “name and shame lists” of offshore gambling sites;
- ban offshore sites from being licensed in Australia;
- banning directors of offshore gambling sites from travelling to Australia;
- voluntary ISP bans on offshore gambling sites;
- “consultation with the banks and credit card providers to assess the potential options and practicality of payment blocking strategies”; and
- a ban on “click-to-call” in-play betting options from licensed providers.
These Canute-like measures are motivated by the ongoing failure of the Interactive Gambling Act, one of a suite of attacks on online freedom undertaken by the Howard government. The failure of the IGA was described in forensic detail by the Productivity Commission in 2010. The PC found that the ban was being ignored by Australians, that offshore sites offered “better prices and more variety”, that the ban drove gamblers to sites “which have poor harm minimisation features and unscrupulous business practises”; “tax revenue that would otherwise have been collected from legitimate Australian sites is now collected by foreign governments” and that regulation, rather than prohibition, “would also increase competition in gambling, with better outcomes for consumers, and provide Australian businesses with greater commercial opportunities”.
Rather than moving to open-slather, which the PC thought might cause disruption, it proposed a staged liberalisation of online gambling restrictions, starting with online poker. Two years later, the Department of Communications reached a similar conclusion. Both were ignored in favour of a hand-wringing opposition to gambling. That hand-wringing has continued under the current government, led by Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, who admits his views on gambling are based not on evidence but on personal anecdotes.
The gambling industry is rightly unpopular, partly because of its intrusive and annoying advertising techniques, but Australians enjoy gambling, and the IGA has produced perverse and self-defeating outcomes, particularly in driving gamblers to poor-quality offshore sites. Rather than admit the logic that prohibition has failed, the government, in true nanny-state style, is now looking to double down with attempts to compel offshore regulators to obey Australians law and try to convince ISPs and banks to co-operate in banning access to offshore sites.
The attempt to co-opt ISPs into being an enforcement arm of the state is a particular strategy of this government — the copyright cartel has been handed the power to take ISPs to court to block access to websites, while the government tried, so far unsuccessfully, to compel ISPs to agree to an industry code under which they would pay for enforcing the cartel’s copyright infringement scheme. Remember, too, that ISPs are being forced to bear the cost — running to hundreds of millions of dollars — of implementing the government’s national mass surveillance scheme. In the event ISPs agree to bans on gambling sites, such bans would of course be trivially easy to circumvent, particularly with VPNs, which are used by nearly one in five Australians.
The attempt to pressure banks into voluntarily banning payments is even more concerning, because of the potential for such bans to extend into other areas. Such bans and their development tend to lack transparency, making them especially vulnerable to scope creep. If you’re banning payments to gambling sites, why not ban payments to euthanasia group Exit International — after all, discussing euthanasia online was banned by the Howard government in one of its other attacks on online free speech. What about unclassified pornography services? Or political or publishing sites that offend a government? The Obama administration, after all, pressured US financial and online services to shut down access to WikiLeaks.
Moreover, the PC did not see “net benefits in, and is not recommending, a ban on the use of credit cards for internet gambling (both online gaming and online wagering)” — partly because the ban would simply drive online gamblers to unregulated providers.
Nonetheless, it seems that, despite the evidence that prohibition isn’t working, it remains the preferred approach of a government far more inclined to censorship and nanny statism than the “thoroughly liberal” approach Malcolm Turnbull boasted of upon becoming Prime Minister.
Disclosure: The author doesn’t gamble, has never gambled, and regards gambling as a tax on innumeracy.