Illegal gambling websites prominent in Google search results

Google Draws Flak As Responsible Gambling Searches Yield Results For Offshore Sites

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As the online gambling market expands in the US, responsible gambling should rightly be a key consideration. One idea often put forward is that of a universal self-exclusion registry. The UK recently implemented one, for instance, but a recent Twitter exchange highlights some of the reasons it’s an incomplete solution.

Gambling Insight GB, a consumer advocacy account, tweeted that a Google search for “gamstop uk” returned paid advertisements for three online gambling affiliates before any results for the service itself. Worse, all three linked to pages specifically promoting offshore sites not enrolled with GamStop.

Presumably, the purpose of those pages and ads is to target self-excluded gamblers seeking to circumvent that protection.

GamStop leads the way on centralized self-exclusion

Launched in early 2018, GamStop is the UK’s national self-exclusion program. All licensed online gambling sites in the country are obliged to screen users and refuse service to anyone on the list, which contained some 50,000 names by the beginning of 2019.

GamStop was originally the creation of a group of UK operators known as the Remote Gambling Association (RGA). In September 2019, the RGA transferred ownership to GamStop’s board of directors so that it could operate independently and without the potential conflict of interest.

It’s an interesting initiative, and one the rest of the world is watching. Retail and online gambling operators are typically required to maintain their own self-exclusion registries, so the effectiveness of GamStop may be a determining factor in whether the idea of a centralized registry catches on.

The Betting and Gaming Commission (BGC) was quick to respond to Gambling Insight GB’s tweet, writing:

“UK licensed operators do not advertise using search terms linked to words seeking help. Any non-UK licensed or affiliate using terms such as GamStop, must be stopped. We will raise this with relevant bodies and push search firms to strengthen their key word prohibitions.”

The group went on to say that it had been in touch with regulators and search engines. It will be looking for ways to address affiliate sites using such search terms to promote illegal offshore sites.

BGC’s proactive approach to responsible gambling

The BGC is an even more recent initiative than GamStop, announced in July 2019, and began operations in November. It is essentially a unified council for all gambling and sports betting operators in the UK. It replaces what used to be three separate entities: the RGA for online gambling, plus the Association of British Bookmakers and the National Casino Forum, which focused on their respective verticals in the retail market.

These days, most gambling companies in the UK have both retail and online operations and offer a full spectrum of products. It was largely redundant to have three separate associations.

Though young, the BGC has had a busy couple of months. Since its formation, it has launched a YouTube media campaign to promote self-imposed deposit limits and rolled out an Anonymous Player Awareness System (APAS) on fixed-odds betting terminals in all betting shops.

APAS monitors betting behavior for patterns that indicate problem gambling. When it detects a problematic pattern, the machine will display a warning message, impose a cooling-off period on the player, and alert staff to monitor when a “responsible gambling interaction” might be needed.

Fundamental problem with centralized self-exclusion

Despite the BGC’s best intentions, though, the issue with Google highlights a fundamental problem with a centralized self-exclusion registry.

A problem gambler who has self-excluded will, as you might imagine, often try to circumvent the system the next time a temptation strikes. If all legal sites share the same database, the player might gravitate toward illegal sites that are easy to find.

For a self-exclusion registry to be useful requires, at minimum, the cooperation of search engines.

Human greed being what it is, of course, offshore gambling sites and the affiliates that promote them will always exist as long as there’s money in it. However, scrupulous filtering by Google and similar companies could ensure that they aren’t just a simple search phrase away.

Even aside from the paid advertisements turned up by Gambling Insight GB, it’s evident that problem gamblers are attempting to use Google to find ways around GamStop. A search for “uk self-exclusion gamstop,” for instance, turns up additional questions related to circumvention.

gamstop people also ask

Google’s laid-back approach doesn’t help

Google has generally taken a hands-off approach to the issue of gambling. This is in stark contrast to Apple, its main competitor in the mobile space. Apple has, if anything, been a bit overzealous in policing gambling. As a result, it has made its platform unfriendly to legal and illegal operators alike.

Google seems to have delisted the specific ads and websites tweeted by Gambling Insight GB. As of the time of writing, however, a search for “sites not on gamstop” still turns up several similar links. There is furthermore an automatically-generated “featured snippet” advertising bonuses for offshore sites.

Fortunately, the growth of regulated online gambling, especially in the US, may soon give Google the right incentives to take matters into its own hands. It has recently begun seeking permission from US regulators to allow legal sites to advertise on its platform. There was a short test period involving NJ online sportsbooks in 2019 before the subsequent approval of online casino ads.

Naturally, regulatory bodies are hesitant to give such permission if ads for illegal offshore sites pop up next to ads for legitimate ones. Google may be feeling pressure from both sides of the Atlantic to do more to preemptively reject ads for offshore sites, whether direct or through affiliate sites.

Is centralized self-exclusion coming to the US?

There’s currently no equivalent to GamStop in the US. Indeed, searching that term on its own from North America redirects to the results for GameStop under the assumption you’re looking for the video game retailer.

However, a Canadian company called Bencon Technologies is working on something similar. Its GameSecure program has received the support of the National Council on Problem Gambling, perhaps the closest thing the US has to the UK’s BGC at the moment.

One problem in the US is that state-by-state regulation poses a hurdle to the widespread adoption of such technology. Each state is trying to determine its approach to regulation, and a system like GameSecure is less effective if a self-excluded player can simply cross state lines to play.

Nor is it likely that the federal government will be helpful in that regard. It is too busy fighting against regulated online gambling to bother helping states to do it right.

Bencon is attempting to work around that problem by partnering with both payment providers and online gambling companies. Last May, it forged a partnership with the Las Vegas-based Sightline Payments to that end. There’s been precious little news from either of them since, but they’re surely watching the progress GamStop is making overseas.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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