Anti-gambling Bill unlikely to be strong curb in long term

Anti-gambling Bill unlikely to be strong curb in long term

At a recent gathering of friends, a normally garrulous buddy would tap on his mobile phone whenever the conversation bored him.

When I asked him what he was doing, he said he had been playing a round of Texas Hold 'Em, a popular form of online poker, and had just won a few dollars.

Nobody found it odd. After all, it was his phone, his money and his choice.

Like other casual online gamblers I spoke to last week after the Remote Gambling Bill was introduced in Parliament, he had cashed out his winnings at various gambling websites, worried that he would have trouble doing so when the Bill passes.

At first blush, it looks like the Bill has already succeeded: The twin threats of jail and not being able to cash out one's online winnings appear enough to deter most casual gamblers.

The proposed blocking of prominent gambling sites will also deter impulse gambling by making it harder to access such sites.

But I doubt that the Bill as currently drafted will be a very strong deterrent in the long term.

First, consider the likely profile of an online gambler.

Studies worldwide - including an Australian one published in March - have shown that online gamblers are most likely male, in their 20s to 40s and tech-savvy; they are likely to hold multiple accounts across gambling portals and access them using various devices.

Like my friend, they know how to get around website blocks.

The Bill requires overseas websites to ensure that their customers are neither gambling from Singapore nor minors - or face prosecution. But the requirement is unlikely to be effective as a person can mask the country he is in by using technological tools. On websites that check a user's age, few heed notices that tell them to leave if they are under 21. As for compelling banks to block payments to gambling sites, banks and credit card issuers here have been doing so for years.

Yet, some Singaporeans still gamble with impunity because once transactions are routed through online payment processors and e-wallets such as PayPal and Neteller, banks cannot tell who is receiving the money. In the event that the police find a way to track such transactions, they still have to grapple with the sheer number of payment providers online. One popular gambling website has over 40 accepted payment methods, with at least half available to Singaporeans.

Even if most e-wallet companies - which have no presence here and thus no obligation to obey the authorities here - comply with the proposed law, this will not deter online gamblers who use other ways to settle their accounts.

A popular way for Singaporeans to cash in and out of their online gambling accounts is to buy and sell funds to gamblers on the same website.

Like trading virtual goods in an online game, such transfers attract no fees, and bank transfers are between private individuals.

And this week, a PayPal sub- sidiary started accepting crypto- currency bitcoin, which will lead to greater anonymity for gamblers.

What then, is a better way of curbing unauthorised online gambling here?

Given the proliferation of gambling websites, it is impossible to block all gambling sites.

To meet the Bill's aim of protecting the young, telcos should be required to ensure that customers who are under the age of 21 do not go to gambling sites, by monitoring mobile data activity on their smartphones and tablets.

The telcos can do this because they would have biographical details such as the age of their subscribers.

Should limited online gambling options be allowed here, the options need to be comparable to what is in the market today, or some Singaporeans will still patronise such sites, even if they are deemed illegal.

As one expert said: "The problem is that the genie has been let out of the bottle, and it is very difficult to put him back."

This article was first published on Sep 14, 2014.
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