A message to the new European Commission: Don’t bet against online consumers
If you’ve read news headlines over the past year, you’ve probably noticed the well-publicized scandals involving social media companies and their use of consumer data. The news made many people, including EU policymakers, stop and think about how the rights and interests of Europe’s citizens could be better protected in an increasingly online world. In truth, much of this is the result of regulations struggling to keep pace with the internet’s rapid, cross-border, and technological development.
There is no doubt this technological step-change has raised questions about where the rights of consumers, the interests of online businesses, and good regulation can intersect harmoniously. I recognize these challenges. The internet revolution has moved my own sector — betting — from traditional side-street bookmaker shops into the computers of millions of customers, just overnight. Today more than 12 million Europeans regularly bet online, conducting nearly 1 million financial transactions to and from our member companies each day. We are, some would say, “a big sector.” And with 20 percent of Europe’s betting now online, we know only too well the challenges of reconciling rapid technological change with consumer protection and effective regulation.
While some EU regulation, such as the GDPR and the Anti-Money Laundering Directive, do provide some regulatory basis, the betting sector is regulated entirely by national policies. Each EU state has its own set of rules and requirements. They work in isolation from each other and without regard to the internet’s cross-border nature. The consequence: 28 very different sets of regulations and 28 different sets of customer experience.
In an era where people can easily place a bet on websites based in other countries, the lack of policy consistency is problematic. It means people can easily be exposed to websites that don’t fully protect their rights or interests. The European Commission recognized this problem in 2014 and outlined a list of safeguards that countries should adopt to ensure Europeans experience a more consistent and higher level of consumer protection in online betting.
One such measure: every state should create a national self-exclusion register to allow people who bet too much or too often — as can be the case in an entertainment sector like ours — to exclude themselves from being able to access betting websites. The Commission committed to review implementation by January 2017, but recently acknowledged it has deprioritized the gambling dossier and will not spend money on measuring the effectiveness of its own online betting proposals.
Shouldn’t online consumer safety by a priority? I think so.
Nobody really knows what the state of play is now. That’s why we asked the City University of London to conduct a review and find out if the Commission’s proposals had been fully implemented. It found that only Denmark had done so, and that millions of Europeans are experiencing varying levels of consumer protection when they bet online. The quality of protection depends solely on where they live.
Only 14 EU countries have adopted a national self-exclusion register, and only 13 require “no underage betting” signs on advertisements. These are simple measures proposed by the Commission, yet they haven’t been introduced in most European countries. Parallel to this, the Commission has disbanded a national expert group it facilitated. The group, made up of national betting regulators, was considered a great success and a valuable platform for exchanging best practices and information between countries.
There is now no formal framework for betting regulators to jointly tackle the big issues affecting the sector, many of which are cross-border in nature and require common solutions. We aren’t alone; many other online sectors face similar frustrations. That’s why I was glad to the see EU leaders recently reaffirm their support for digitalizing Europe’s economy and press the Commission to bring the single market further in line with the digital age. We hope the incoming Commission listens.
In the online betting sector, formal regulatory cooperation is a necessary first step, followed by standardization and more common rules. It makes common sense do so. Consumers, regulators and companies will all benefit from a set of clear and consistent rules, rather than the current patchwork of national regulations.
The European Gaming and Betting Association has six member companies that offer services across 19 EU countries. To do so, they hold more than 134 online betting licenses combined, each with their own compliance requirements. That is an average 22 licenses per company. In many cases the licenses needed in one country comes with the same requirements as in another. While having good verification and stringent licensing requirements makes sense, the administrative duplication doesn’t.
In online betting there is a need to ensure customers can bet in a safe, fair and responsible way. This means ensuring that people living in one EU country have the same rights and high level of consumer protection as those living in another. Greater regulatory cooperation and better enforcement of existing EU initiatives and laws will go some way toward achieving this. Making the single market work better for those citizens who bet online will require even higher standards than those applied to other online sectors. But leaving it up to EU countries alone has not worked, so the incoming European Commission needs to act.