A loophole allowing punters to place bets online during sporting events will be closed by the federal government as part of a comprehensive review.
Gambling-safety advocates have broadly welcomed the recommendations of the O’Farrell review into the online sports-betting industry, released on Thursday, including the establishment of a national self-exclusion register for problem gamblers and a ban on bookies offering punters lines of credit.
But it was criticised by the peak body for online bookies, which accused the government of flinching in the face of industry innovation and doing too little to quash the use of illegal offshore websites.
Online wagering is the fastest-growing segment of Australia’s gambling market, worth about $1.4bn of a total $21bn national spend and increasing by about 15% a year.
Up to $400m of Australians’ total gambling expenditure is thought to be spent on illegal offshore sites, which can sometimes offer more exotic deals and leverage their tax savings to offer better odds.
Community groups have also raised concerns that regulation of the online sports-betting industry is insufficient and has not kept up with technological advances.
Among the recommendations delivered by the former New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell on Thursday was closing a “live betting” loophole exploited by bookies such as Sportsbet and William Hill, the UK owner of the Tom Waterhouse brand.
Bets during sporting matches are banned online but permitted over the phone and in person. William Hill was investigated by the Australian federal police last year for its “click to call” function, which enables a computer or phone microphone when punters place live bets from its website or app, technically fulfilling the “phonecall” requirement.
Live bets are considered by gambling safety advocates to be a particularly risky form of gambling, encouraging more frequent betting and chasing of losses.
The review found the rate of problem gambling was three times higher among those who gamble online compared with gamblers in general.
It also suggested bookmakers be banned from offerings customers lines of credit, the “urgent” recommendation of an August report by Financial Counselling Australia (FCA).
The FCA welcomed the review’s finding on Thursday but said bans should be extended to include bets using credits cards. “Racking up thousands of dollars on your credit card for gambling is a really dangerous practice, regardless of whether it is for illegal offshore gambling or for legal gambling,” the association’s policy director Lauren Levin said.
“The same for payday loans. A debt is a debt when the debt collectors come knocking, and this happens really quickly.”
The federal government accepted virtually all O’Farrell recommendations, stopping short of committing to a French-style system of blocking internet service providers from accessing offshore illegal websites.
Instead, it pledged to publish “name and shame” lists of illegal sites and their directors, whose travel to Australia could also be disrupted.
Samantha Thomas, an associate professor at Deakin University who investigates the impact of gambling advertisements, said the recommendations were “really good and have been really needed”, particularly the establishment of a national self-exclusion register funded by bookies.
But she criticised the lack of focus on gambling advertising, other than a recommendation to subject social media marketing to the same regulations as traditional advertising.
“We know that marketing is a huge issue, it’s the issue of most community concern, and is having a significant impact on kids’ gambling attitudes, but also young men’s gambling behaviours,” she said.
“It’s a really big missed opportunity that is almost negligent, given how many experts have raised this as a very serious issue.
“We’re in an election year and I wonder if the government was cautious about upsetting the broadcasters, because they make a huge amount of money from wagerers, who are one of the biggest advertisers in the country,” she said.
The Australian Wagering Council (AWC), which represents Sportsbet and William Hill, among others, said technology was rapidly changing the industry and Australia had “flinched” at the chance to be a market leader.
“Offshore operators will be delighted. Nothing announced today will stop those determined to flout the law,” said the AWC’s chief executive Ian Fletcher.
Banning live bets would “penalise Australian licensed wagering operators, while keeping the back door open for illegal offshore operators to target Australian customers,” he said.
Source: The Guardian