By EDRi

The European Parliament has a committee dedicated to enhancing the European single market and consumer protection. This is a good thing. Imagine how such a committee would react to an industry that is hampered by protectionism, national monopolies and the blocking of foreign services that offer better value for money. Well, you don’t have to imagine, because the so-called IMCO Committee recently adopted a report on Online Gambling (PDF). The result should be great, right? Unfortunately not.

British parliamentarians understand the problem of online gambling in Europe better than most. The UK has a vibrant, competitive, innovative market, which is hampered by anti-competitive behaviour from governments elsewhere in Europe protecting national monopolies or weak, uncompetitive local companies, in order to protect tax revenues. With the Committee chair being British and the MEP in charge of the dossier (the “rapporteur”), Ashley Fox, being British, with the Committee’s raison d’être being support for the internal market and consumers… what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, it turns out.

The report calls for a long list of actions from the European Commission and from Member States, ranging from incomprehensible calls for illegal activity to be made illegal (“prohibit online betting operators engaged in illegal activities”) to a ban on advertising which informs people that “gambling is a reasonable strategy to improving a person’s finances”.

In the middle of the incoherence, there is a more sinister proposal, namely blocking of websites.

Unsurprisingly, British gambling websites in particular have been the target of Internet blocking from various European countries. In Belgium, state authorities put Internet providers under pressure to “voluntarily” block certain websites, such as the site of bwin. This led to the blocking of www.bwin.com and www2.bwin.com by major Belgian ISPs, without any legal basis whatsoever, although this has now been overturned after a bwin threatened legal action against the ISPs.

It should be noted that research by the European Commission indicates that blocking is “costly”, “inefficient” and “challenging” (note: the text was watered down somewhat before being finally adopted by the Commission, the link points to a leak). The European Commission told us informally, when it was preparing its Green Paper on the subject, that the impact of blocking of British websites in France was low (as gamblers prefer to work out how to circumvent the ban than put up with the cost of using domestic services). Therefore, the damage to bwin’s business in Belgium might be lower than one would assume (it has now set up a Belgian operation). However, the bottom line is that lawless interferences of this nature are clearly unwelcome and are also illegal under international law (restrictions of this nature must be based on a specific law according to, for example, the European Convention on Human Rights). It is also inappropriate and discriminatory to create a two-tier Internet where the many who can circumvent such a block have advantages over the few who are can not.

One has to wonder how a committee that is supposed to support the single European market and supposed to support the interests of consumers can adopt a text which fails to offer any vision at all. Instead much of the report repeats what was in another report on the same topic by the same committee, adopted less than two years ago.

It should be pointed out that Ashley Fox opposed many of the incoherent, chaotic proposals of his colleagues. Nonetheless, he is left with a text which still bears his name (although he has the right to remove it), which contains proposals which would continue to damage legitimate companies in his own country, demands sometimes disproportionate, often absurd and frequently unnecessary interventions by Member States and the European Commission and a final product, due to be voted in the second week of September, which looks more like a failed high-school project than a serious piece of work by a democratically elected institution.

The question now is, which European Parliament political group (if any) will have the courage to at least demand a split vote to cut out evidence-free, dangerous assertion that ”establishing white and black
lists of, and preventing access to, illegal gambling websites” is best practice. It is not immediately obvious what the Committee believes a white list of illegal gambling websites might be.

Update 10 July Jürgen Creutzmann MEP has contacted EDRi and promised that the ALDE (Liberal) Group will ask for a split vote, to allow the Parliament to vote separately on the wording on white and blacklisting of illegal websites and will also seek to negotiate other improvements before the vote in September.

The “shadow rapporteurs” that were responsible for negotiating the final text (which was adopted with 32 votes in favour and 3 against) and therefore share responsibility for its incoherence are:

*Sirpa Pietikäinen – EPP (Finland)
*Christel Schaldemose – S&D (Denmark)
*Jürgen Creutzmann – ALDE (Germany)
*Heide Rühle – Greens (Germany)
*Cornelis De Jong – GUE/NGL (Netherlands)
*Matteo Salvini – EFD (Italy).