Advertising Crackdown in Australia?

24 August 2005

Three search engines catering to Australian consumers appear to be in hot water for running I-gaming advertisements, but none of them acknowledge doing so purposefully.

ZDNet Australia reports that Australia's Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) is looking into whether Yahoo, Google and Web Wombat have violated the country's federal Interactive Gambling Act (IGA) by carrying advertisements for Internet casinos and poker rooms on sites in which "the majority of that site's users are physically present in Australia."

Among the games restricted by the act are roulette, poker, craps, video poker and blackjack. Sites that accept advertisements for sites carrying these games are subject to a maximum fine of AU$1.1 million per day, although the DCITA has seldom found itself in a position to impose penalties.

The IGA mandates that the DCITA cannot take action against any site breaching the law unless a formal complaint is filed by a resident or company. The department has taken action on four complaints, and a fifth violation is under investigation.

Despite the prescribed process for taking action, however, it appears that the investigation of the search engines was not preceded by the filing of complaints, and Alexandra Mason, a spokesperson for the DCITA, confirmed that this is the case.

For the search engines, meanwhile, decisions on which advertisements are okay to run aren't as cut-and-dry as it might appear.

At the root of the problem for the Web Wombat, a lesser-known search engine based in Melbourne, is that it gives advertisers control over their banner ads.

"This feature was originally designed for companies outside Australia to sponsor links on our site and attract Australian eyeballs," Web Wombat's Michael Tancredi explained. "People register, pay their fee with a credit card and the process is automated. We have been manually checking as we go and blocking the ads, but there are some that have carried over. As soon as we see them, we try and get them out, but they keep getting back in.

"What we are trying to do is fire fight. We know it is illegal and we are trying to get rid of them as they come out."

Tancredi added that the epidemic isn't specific to online gambling; ads for prescription drugs, he said, also find their way into the Web Wombat system.

"In America, they can be advertised openly," Tancredi said, "but if they are prescription drugs, they can't be advertised in Australia."

Advertisers are similarly taking advantage of Google Australia by running spots on the site's "sponsored links" section to online gambling sites when certain keywords are misspelled.

But not being able to keep close track of who's advertising what, according to Justine Munsie, doesn't excuse carrying illegal ads. Munsie, a senior associate at Asia-Pacific law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques, says that any ad promoting a site that provides any of the restricted gambling services (regardless of how the add makes it onto the Internet) violates the IGA.

"If a Web site that is targeting Australian users publishes an advert for a Web site offering online gambling services," Munsie explained, "regardless of where that gambling site is located, because the advert is published in Australia, the law is broken."

Munsie speculates that the misspelled keyword scenario is an oversight by Google management.

"Obviously Google is thinking it is doing the right thing and not accepting any sponsored links from these online casinos," she said, "but somehow it has forgotten to close off the loop of the spelling error. It is most likely an accident, and if it was brought to Google's attention I'm sure they would fix it."

Google's closest competitor in Australia,, is in a slightly different position. Yahoo's only known links to gambling sites are in the form of search results, not advertisements.

"Although our directory site does include links to gambling-related sites, our legal department has said that they are editorial links and fall under the exemptions provided by the Act," Tamsin Smith, a spokesperson for Yahoo Australia and New Zealand, explained.

Regardless of how the ads (and/or perceived ads) are finding their way to the Internet, Peter Coroneos, chief executive of the Internet Industry Association, believes Australian media outlets are generally adhering to the IGA.

"This is the first time this (the possible search engine violations) has come to our attention," Coroneos said. "The law is largely being adhered to. I am not aware of any interactive casino sites in Australia that are offering services to Australians."

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