UK Gambling Commission to Get Tough with Unfair Online Operators

UK Gambling Commission (UKGC)The UK Gambling Commission is introducing new rules from 31st October that (hopefully) will result in a fairer gaming environment for all online gamblers.

If you have been an online poker player for any length of time, visited an online casino, or placed a sports bet online, you are probably used to operators´ terms and conditions relating to promotions, withdrawals, and complaints. Over time, you have probably come to accept them as the norm (like us), and just got on with it.

In some cases, the terms and conditions are ambiguous and can be applied in the operator´s favour when there is a dispute. It doesn´t happen so much in online poker because players are playing against each other and not against the house; but there are still some restrictions applied that aren´t that fair when you think about it. With no particular operator in mind, we´ve come across restrictions like:

  • If you request a withdrawal during a promotion, you lose the benefit of that promotion.
  • Tournament tickets won in a promotion have to be used within a certain number of days.
  • When you request a withdrawal, you have to wait [x] days before the request is processed.

We understand why online poker sites may be reluctant for players to make a deposit, take advantage of a bonus, and then withdraw their deposit – effectively playing for free with the poker site´s money. We also understand why poker sites don´t want an unlimited liability on outstanding tournament tickets, but why can´t the sites impose fairer restrictions like you can withdraw an amount equivalent to the bonus you have cleared, or you can use the tickets for any tournament within three months?

There is no viable excuse for making players wait for their funds in an era when financial transactions can be performed with the click of a mouse. It wouldn´t be accepted in a brick-and-mortar casino nor in a High Street cash betting office (unless the casino/betting office had run out of money), so why is this restriction applied online? It can only be so that online operators can keep players´ funds on deposit longer to make more interest on them. That´s not fair under any circumstances.

Many Operators have Unfair Complaints Procedures

The biggest problems occur when players switch from one site to another and don´t read the operator´s terms and conditions – assuming they are all the same (this also applies to new players who fail to read the terms and conditions before registering an account). When this happens and (for example) a tournament ticket expires before a player has the chance to use it, the player may feel justified in making a complaint. However, this is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Although the player may be in the wrong for failing to read and understand the terms and conditions of the promotion – or before registering their account – online operators have very little sympathy. Occasionally they will make a goodwill gesture, but more often than not will refer the player to the terms and conditions and claim no liability for the player´s oversight. In certain circumstances the situation can get even worse. Here´s a snippet from one online operator´s terms relating to complaints:

If a player submits a complaint or claim, [name of online operator] reserves the right at any time, without prior notice and without prejudice to any subsequent proceedings, to close the player´s account, deny access to all or part of the services, and in particular to refuse to accept a bet or transaction, or to withdraw promotional offers from [name of online operator] pending the conclusion of any proceedings.

Not only is the wording confusing, but what the term means in plain language is that if a player makes a complaint, the online operator has the right to close their account and hang onto their money until the complaint is resolved. This may be an extreme example (and, by the way, PokerNewsReport.com does not endorse the site from which this snippet was taken), but many online operators have a watered-down version of this term to dissuade players from making justifiable complaints.

How the UKGC Intends to Address the Problems

The UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) is the regulatory authority for most gambling operations in the UK (spread betting in the UK is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority). Although the UKGC does not get involved in individual disputes between players and online operators, it does issue operators´ licenses and offers players an opportunity to complain about a licensed operator – and the way the operator is running its business – if the operator is not fulfilling its licensing conditions.

Due to a growing number of issues being brought to the attention of the UKGC, the Commission is revising its Licensing Conditions and Code of Practice from 31st October with the objective of cracking down on operators who don´t treat consumers fairly. Five new rules are being introduced to create a fairer gaming environment for all online gamblers, with tougher enforcement measures and penalties for operators who fail to comply. The five new rules are:

  • Licensed operators will be required to comply with the UK´s advertising code – particularly in respect of socially responsible marketing.
  • Licensed operators will be held responsible for the actions of their affiliate partners to ensure promotions are marketed consistently and transparently.
  • Licensed operators will have to comply with the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 in respect of promotions and withdrawals.
  • Licensed operators will need to implement a clear complaints handling process and resolve all complaints within an eight-week timescale.
  • Licensed Operators will be prohibited from sending direct electronic marketing emails, SMS texts, and push notifications, etc. unless the player has specifically opted to receive them.

The five new rules are explained fully in the UKGC´s “Changes to Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice Linked to the Fair and Open Licensing Objective” (PDF). Alternatively, you can watch the Commission´s Ian Angus and Pradeep Rajania – respectively the Program Director for Consumer Protection and Empowerment, and the Senior Manager of Consumer Policy – discussing the new rules in the video below.

 Might the New Rules Extend Beyond the UK?

This is more than likely for three reasons. First of all, the problems being addressed by the UKGC are not UK-exclusive problems. Norway already bans all non-state sanctioned gambling ads, Italy is introducing a blanket ban on all gambling ads from next January, and Australia has banned gambling ads during televised sporting events. Spain is just finalising its measures to prohibit gambling ads during certain times, and many other countries are expected to follow suit.

Secondly, now that online operators will be responsible for the actions of their affiliate partners – and expected to terminate contracts with non-compliant affiliates – promotions marketed through UK-facing affiliate websites will have to comply with the new rules. As affiliates are unlikely to create a separate website for the UK market or geo-block the UK market, players can expect more transparency in marketing activities wherever they live.

Thirdly, the UKGC is expecting licensed operators to update existing protocols and procedures in order to ensure compliance with the new rules, and train staff to be fully aware of the new complaint obligations. It is extremely unlikely that multi-national licensed operators will have one set of procedures for UK gamblers and another for the rest of the world. Therefore all players are likely to benefit from the new UKGC rules relating to the complaints handling process.

It will be interesting to see how UK-licensed operators apply the new rules to their global operations and how the UKGC cracks down on non-compliant operators once the rules are introduced. Anybody who plays on a UK-licensed site should see a decline in unfair terms and conditions. If not, you can complain to the Gambling Commission directly. Or, if you play at a site licensed outside the UK, complain to the appropriate international licensing authority.