Social Responsibility: Creating a New Framework

17 October 2002

One of the key issues in establishing new regulatory regimes for I-gaming is the need to uphold a strong social responsibility platform that protects minors and addresses the issue of problem gambling. Recent declarations in the United States and recent remarks by member state governments in the European Union voice a strong opinion on the need for robust consumer protection in the area of I-gaming. If so, how does one go about creating a viable socially responsible standard?

The starting point is dealing with the issue of protecting children from access to I-gambling sites. There are several ways of doing this, but three stand out in particular.

The first, of course, is through method of payment. Credit cards are mainly offered to individuals over a certain age, for instance over 18 in the United Kingdom. The banks thus have their own system of managing age. However, credit card transactions become more difficult for countries where credit cards are more freely available to young people.

Other forms of transactions carry the same risk such as debit cards, a growing method of cashless payment in the EU. In this case, a secondary check should be put in place. However, where are the databases for vetting against? Several countries have such databases, which allow for immediate cross reference to verify name, address, birth date, etc. The electoral roll in the U.K. and drivers license information in the United States are two such examples. Where there are no database connections, then more traditional methods would have to be put in place such as faxed documents indicating personal details such as passports or bank statements. While this somewhat defeats the point of real-time Internet access, it is necessary to uphold strong standards. Finally, all sites should use voluntary parental control systems for managing access to the Internet in the home. Systems like the one provided by the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) are easy to apply and assist in adding value to socially responsible standards.

The second point is prevention of problem gambling. While arguments will continue as to the extent of problem gambling, few refute the need to take proactive measures to prevent problem gambling in the first place. The main issue involved here is customer- and operator-led measures. In the former, sites should offer customers a set of self-imposed limitations whether based on time, deposit, stake wagered, etc. In some cases this might not be technologically possible such as simultaneously monitoring thousands of "session times," but the customer should have a number of options for limiting his or her use of games or money flows. However, operators should also put in place measures meant to prevent problem gambling, as it would be difficult to rely on problem gamblers to self-impose limits.

Operator measures usually center around debate in three areas: "reality checks," operator-imposed limits similar to the ones indicated above for customers and limiting payment methods. While there is a debate about what is an effective reality check, most acknowledge that some form of interruption is necessary. This has always been a contentious issue, as reality checks are not imposed in terrestrial gambling, although such checks exist in the movement of players between tables, viewing sporting events and other concentration breakages. On aspect of the "reality check" is the interactivity of the check. Clicking off a pop-up window or acknowledging a question about continuing to play can also prove effective. Operator limits are difficult in the I-gaming world, as many sites will host a variety of games. Time limits for bingo are significantly different from a slot or gaming machine. The key here is not to set overly prescriptive limits, but to enforce them when they are breached. A three-strikes-and-you're-out policy might be effective in this regard. Finally, there should be mechanisms in place that reinforce to the customers the need to be responsible for their actions on a site when they use a variety of payment methods. Many switch payment to other credit cards or forms of payment due to expired cards, adjusting balances or simply changing credit providers. However, there should be some check on being freely able to use a variety of payment methods particularly in a short period of time.

Finally, there is the issue of partnering with groups that provide problem gambling services. This is a very important reference to where a customer can request assistance from a group and should be included on the site, particularly on the registration or self-imposed limits page. Also, within the boundaries of data protection, operators and social responsibility groups should work out ways of identifying problem gamblers using the technology on hand. This is a very sensitive subject, but until one has reached a decision that it cannot be done, efforts should be made to leverage the deep log files that can help identify problem gamblers.

There is no foolproof method of eliminating all the risks indicated in this article. However, it is not just the job of the regulator to insure compliance to socially responsible standards. With sufficient investment in being socially responsible, I-gaming operators can set a robust enough standard that creates what most operators require in this industry--trust. Trust between the operator and regulator and most importantly, trust between the operator and the customer.

Wes Himes is the director of the Interactive Gaming, Gambling and Betting Association (iGGBA). Through his government relations company, Policy Action Limited (PAL), Wes works with various new media/entertainment associations in Europe. He is a director of the European Digital Media Association (EDiMA) and part of the Secretariat managing the Global Entertainment Retail Alliance - Europe (GERA). Prior to this he worked as an aide to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels and as director of state development for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Washington D.C. He has a BA from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Kathiolieke University in Brussels.