You spoke to Gambling Insider last year on the pandemic not justifying emergency measures to stop problem gambling. So, a year on from that interview, do you think regulators have adhered to the same steps originally made from the outset, and do you think responsible gambling regulations have slipped?
It’s not that they have slipped, I think that many regulations were introduced based on emergency legislation and the fact that no one knew what we were entering into. Regulations were centred around data collected at the time (which I would imagine to be very different by jurisdiction). We didn’t feel the need to introduce such emergency measures. It’s been around a year and a half since the pandemic, I think everyone has understood that it’s here to stay and Covid isn’t likely to be over soon, but hopefully we won’t be calling it a pandemic anymore. The good thing now is that the public can travel again and restrictions have eased globally. The fact that these restrictions have eased, in my opinion, no longer justifies the maintenance of emergency regulation.
It may not be necessary soon to justify every restrictive measure; however, I believe in striking a balance between regulating the sector to have and maintain a safe environment for the players. This also means still regulating the industry, but not in a way that stifles it to a point where it no longer remains attractive. The whole purpose of gambling is entertainment. If the regulated activity is no longer entertaining to the player, the industry runs the risk of players seeking entertainment in unregulated areas, or the black market.
I am using the word regulated specifically because if a market is regulated by a reputable jurisdiction, that offer is safe for the consumers. We want consumers to remain in that market, we don’t want to lose them to the black market. Otherwise, the objective of keeping gambling safe and fair isn’t being maintained.
The essence of a regulator is to keep a gambler safe, among other things, but also to optimise a market and an industry. Is there anything else involved in the role of a regulator that perhaps people don’t know?
The number of checks that are entered when a licence is issued is something that not many people know. The checks relate to the sustainability of the company and the people behind it. Once the licence is issued, the checks are continuous, including ones of the offering itself, how fair it is and technical analysis. Which again, most people don’t know.
It is not just about safety promotion. The technical examination of each offer makes sure players will not be cheated, or that the random number generators work the way they are supposed to – we go into this amount of detail.
I think it is good for players to be aware of these things, to understand that when we say fair offer, it actually is a fair offer. When playing in the black market, there is no guarantee that the game will be fair, with no one checking it. When you are playing in a regulated market, there will always be relevant checks.
There is a lot of cooperation that goes on with regulators, we share a lot of information and bilateral agreements with various regulators. We have questions about the activity of particular operators, so we make sure we always monitor the activity of the operator in general.
Normality has resumed (somewhat), which could have an adverse effect on online gambling. Considering the amount of newly regulated companies choosing Malta, has there been an increase or decrease in online gambling since restrictions have eased?
That is a good point. We are actually in the moment of compiling that information, to be honest. We will be analysing and publishing all relevant figures soon; it’s interesting for us to see.
At the start of the pandemic, when sports events stopped, we saw a decrease in sports betting and received a bit of an update in other areas. We expect to see a slight dip, as there are more things to do now. That’s neither positive nor negative; it proves to me that gambling is a source of entertainment in that sense.
I would be more concerned if we saw things we didn’t expect. So seeing an uptake in gambling during the pandemic which was higher than usual, while it was risky, is the reason why we called upon our operators to make sure they stuck to their obligations. This meant not advertising aggressively and sticking to requirements. The most important thing is that operators continue to be vigilant and more so after the pandemic, but I’ll let you know when we have more data!
Touching on the allure of the black market, you said it was the regulator’s obligation and duty to work with operators to enable a monitored environment. Do you think smaller companies could be steered towards a greyer market, due to such strict restrictions?
Today the industry is a very heavily regulated one. It always was, but even more so with the amount of regulation from all jurisdictions. So I can see why it may be difficult for certain companies to meet the required degree of regulation. But, to be honest, it is not the time to cut corners on that. We do expect all companies to meet those requirements. For example, in Malta, we do have some start-up incentives, but they normally relate to administrative ease of burden, not regulatory. We expect any regulated game, no matter who is offering it, to be completely safe and fair.
Do you ever see yourself tightening your restrictions like other regulators, for instance, the Dutch regulator?
I think every regulator shares the same objectives. When it comes to some regulators that have one target market, it depends on the consumers within those markets. The way we regulate has proven to be effective and conducive to the achievement of our regulatory objectives.
And, in hindsight, do you think all operators have behaved responsibly during the pandemic, from a regulatory perspective?
No, that will never be the case. We publish decisions concerning aggressive advertising. When the pandemic first hit, a handful of licensees attempted to exploit the situation and resorted to Covid-related advertising. I must say we were and are quite strict. We didn’t even allow any reference to stay home and play, which before the pandemic would have been fine. We would have never had an issue for a player to stay home previously. Here, ‘stay home’ might have triggered someone’s fear of going out and have different implications. On the other hand, we could see the vast majority of licensees were proactive in dialling down their marketing campaigns, and were cognisant of the effects on their players.
What are your aims in 2022 – is there a main focus or a new strategy?
We will be focusing on outreach to all stakeholders, more so than we already do. We intend to be more in touch with operators to understand what we can do to help and move forward. More than ever, we understand we are not on different sides. Effective regulation is regulation that is based on cooperation. It makes no sense for us to regulate from a perspective where we don’t understand what the operator is facing. Understanding challenges and the technologies that operators implement is a journey with no end. We want to be on the journey with the operators.