SINGAPORE - Singapore plans to impose a sweeping ban on sports betting via overseas websites, but experts said Tuesday that virtual private networks (VPNs) would erode the effectiveness of the move.
A "remote gambling" bill filed in parliament on Monday will give the government broad powers to block access to the websites as well as blocking electronic payments to their operators.
"The objectives for regulating remote gambling are to maintain law and order and protect young persons and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by remote gambling," the home affairs ministry said in a statement.
Singapore currently bans access to about 100 websites, mostly featuring pornographic, extremist and hateful content. Access to extramarital dating site Ashley Madison is also banned in the city-state.
The new law will make it an offence, punishable by jail terms and fines, for Singaporeans to gamble on overseas gambling websites, while advertisements for them on online and offline platforms will also be outlawed.
Exemptions will be granted for locally-based online gambling operators that follow strict rules and operate on a non-profit basis.
Government-linked betting firms involved in sports betting and horse racing channel proceeds to charity and social causes.
Media and technology experts say blocking overseas websites will have limited effectiveness.
"There is VPN, and so the most effective method is not through blocking sites," said Ang Peng Hwa, a media law professor at the Nanyang Technological University.
Alfred Siew, editor of local technology website Techgoondu, said an increasing number of Singaporeans use overseas-based VPN services to access blocked websites.
"I believe blocking will at least keep out those casual gamblers or those who just chance upon the websites," Siew said.
"Whether it is pornography or any other kind of objectionable content, if the person is hardcore enough, he will find a way to access it," he added.
Noel Biderman, the head of Canada-based Ashley Madison which enables married persons to have affairs, has said over 5,000 Singaporeans have signed on to the portal using VPN, bypassing the government ban.
Ang said it would be more effective for authorities to target payments directed at the gambling websites.
"The aim is not to be 100 per cent effective but to deter most people most of the time," he said.
Zoran Vasiljev, a partner at Singapore-based market research firm Solidiance, said "technology-savvy gamblers will quickly identify remote proxies and continue with the activity".
He also called for restrictions on transactions to online gambling sites which would "curb the gambling losses and the length (of time) one spends gambling online continuously."
Sports betting, especially on top European football league matches, is deeply entrenched in Singapore. Its online gambling market is estimated to be worth US$416 million (S$524.3 million), with 95 per cent of revenues headed towards overseas websites, Singapore's Straits Times said Tuesday.