The Australian government’s latest step to reform and regulate online gambling will come into force next Monday. It will see a slew of offshore gambling sites which are targeted at Australian users, being blocked by ISPs across the country.
Users of these sites are being warned by the authorities to try and withdraw any money they have in accounts on overseas betting sites ahead of this deadline. Some will no doubt do this while others will choose to use a VPN to circumvent the new blocks and continue to gamble as they see fit.
The O’Farrell Review
The move is the third and final step the government is taking as a result of a review carried out into the issue of offshore gambling by former New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell.
This was published back in 2016 and has already led to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) being given the power to hand down civil penalties on companies running such sites, banning them from issuing credit, and led to the creation of nationally-consistent protections for online gamblers.
These steps have seen more than 65 different companies withdraw from the Australian market over the past two years. But the online block could see that number rise dramatically.
The government has also pointed out that many of the sites do little to prevent harmful use of their sites by problem gamblers. Sites such as Emu Casino and FairGo Casino are deliberately targeting vulnerable Australians as a lucrative market.
The offshore gambling industry in Australia is estimated to be worth as much as AU$400 million and costs the Australian government more than AU$100 million in lost tax revenue each year. Little wonder then that the government is keen to crack down on the issue.
But there have been some concerns raised by users as well. Reports of sites refusing or failing to pay up any or the majority of winnings to Australian customers have grown. Some sites have even been accused of continuing to withdraw money from users accounts without permission.
Now the ACMA has confirmed that Australian ISPs will be asked to block all sites which are deemed to be in breach of Australian laws but continue to make their services available to Australian customers.
The Australian authorities are not planning to block access to online gambling sites altogether but simply restrict access to those sites that don’t comply with local regulations.
Their motivation is clearly positive but the problem is that their actions are likely to prove ineffective.
The ACMA has turned to blocking these sites because other legal attempts to control them have failed.
As Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said to the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, it is difficult to take direct action against “faceless companies” with “no legal presence on our shores”.
Blocking them might, therefore, seem like a simple solution but it isn’t.
Sites can easily switch to a different URL and this means Australian ISPs end up in a game of cat-and-mouse where the illegal site is always going to be one step ahead.
But an even more obvious issue is the use of VPNs. VPN use in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years as the government has deployed increasingly authoritarian legislation to control and surveil their online activity.
The controversial anti-encryption laws in Australia, which have made headlines around the world and caused huge damage to the country’s digital economy, are just one of a slew of draconian new online laws.
With the Australian government failing to protect their people’s online rights, more and more people are taking matters into their own hands and sign up for VPNs like ExpressVPN and NordVPN to protect their online security and private.
These tools also help Australians access sites their government has chosen to block and this is likely to extend to these overseas betting sites once this latest law comes into force next week.
Take care when gambling online
Normally, when writing about an issue like this, we would be condemning a government that is censoring access to websites and restricting people’s choice online.
But in this instance, the Australian government does seem to be acting in the best interests of its people. These sites might be costing the government money and breaking the law, but they are also frequently ripping off innocent Australian users and exploiting vulnerable people for their own profit.
We are therefore certainly not encouraging Australian readers to use a VPN to access these illegal betting sites in this way but rather highlight a significant loophole in the government’s plans.
When talking about the new plans, ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin has said that “Public education is also crucial in deterring Australians from using these sites, given many illegal offshore gambling websites target Australians by using Australian themes and images, such as the Australian flag and native animals.”
She is absolutely right and there certainly needs to be more focus on this aspect rather than simply trying to block these sites and hoping the issue will go away. This approach won’t work.
If you are going to gamble online in Australia, always use permitted and legitimate sites that have all the right safeguards in place.
If you think you or someone you know has problems with gambling, contact an organisation like Lifeline for support.