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Answers: Russian ISPs Blocking Access to Online Gambling Sites

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This article was contributed by a guest author to OPR and involves speculation regarding legal issues. It is not a substitute for legal advice.

Recent news from Russia of potential concern to both Russian poker players and those who enjoy their presence at online poker tables: an October 9, 2012 Russian Supreme Court ruling that may lead to Russian ISPs to blocking access to gambling websites.

We’re not talking about just online casinos here; even allowing access to an online casino review site,  resource or training site could now potentially be a violation of Russian law.

How did things get to this point, and where are they headed next?  Let’s start with a bit of background.

Recent Changes to Russian Gambling Law

In 2009 Russia made radical changes to its gambling laws. Sports betting became restricted to licensed sources, while brick and mortar casino gambling became restricted to four approved gambling zones. These zones are in remote areas that are inaccessible to much of the population.

This change in law resulted in the closure of 3900 illegal casinos and 25k gambling parlors.

Poker an Exception to Russian Law?

Some argued that online poker remained in a legal gray area after these changes due the skill elements of the game.  Though poker was potentially illegal, the law lacked absolute clarity on the matter for many.  Most importantly, authorities showed little interest in pursuing anyone connected to the game.  Online poker continued to thrive in this ambiguous climate.

It wasn’t until 2012 that online poker was discussed at the judicial level, when prosecutors from Pskov (a city about 12 miles from the Estonian border) demanded that internet service providers (ISPs) begin blocking websites of gambling operators and portals containing “information on different games as roulette, poker and slot machines.”

The ISPs refused, as these sites were not on any government block lists and such blocks would be resource-intensive. This led the Pskov prosecutors to file a lawsuit.

At first they were unsuccessful. Roughly translated from Russian to English the Pskov City court initially ruled:

”the law does not hold those who disseminate information about gambling on the internet responsible. The rules of criminal and administrative law hold only the gambling organization in violation of the law responsible. “

This was a great precedent for online poker players. Until this point there were already no laws that made it a crime for simply providing access to online gambling, and now there was a court ruling that the ISPs were not responsible either. As online poker sites such as PokerStars are not based in Russia, but are accessible by Russians, these could be used without much restriction.

The Pskov prosecutors appealed the decision. The case recently reached the Russian Supreme Court.

How the Russian Supreme Court Ruled

The Supreme Court’s ruling is only available in Russian.  The law firm Baker & McKenzie has an explanatory notice in English.

The gist: the Supreme Court ruled the ISPs involved violated the law by allowing access to online gambling providers and gambling-focused content sites.

Poker is mentioned twice in the decision.  Both times are in reference to the original complaint brought by the Pskov prosecutors against ISPs for allowing access to sites that contained “information on different games as roulette, poker and slot machines.”

This decision does not appear to alter the law or create new law regarding online poker.  What it may do, however, is force the question of online poker’s uncertain legality to be tested in court as ISPs and users seek guidance on exactly what type of content is to be blocked.

What Happens Next?

With precedent set, Russian ISPs could risk loss of license if they do not block access to online casinos and gambling information websites.

The open questions are:

  • How vigorously will ISPs (and the authorities who oversee them) enforce the law?
  • Will online poker continue to enjoy a quasi-exception to Russian law in the wake of this decision?

Time will tell, but with the loss of license at stake it’s not hard to imagine that ISPs will err on the side of over-enforcing the law.

How the Ruling May Impact Online Poker Players

Data suggests Russia has one of the world’s top 5 online poker playing populations.  Online poker tracking site PokerTableRatings.com has a list of top countries that shows the biggest winners and losers. It also shows how many players they have tracked from each country:

  • #1 United States (865,843)
  • #2 Germany (221,262)
  • #3 Canada (194,480)
  • #4 Russia (164,304)
  • #5 United Kingdom (154,697)
  • #6 France (78,792).

The 2012 WSOP earnings by country list contained the same six countries at the top (in a different order), with a similar story in 2011 and 2010.  The 2012 series saw 23 year old Russian player Viacheslav Zhukov win his second Omaha Hi/Lo bracelet in as many years, only a day after fellow Russian player Konstantin Puchkov broke the record for most WSOP cashes by year.

You get the point: Russia plays a substantial role in the global poker industry.

A program of aggressive compliance with this ruling by Russian ISPs could decimate the Russian market for online poker, dragging down the rest of the already-vulnerable worldwide market for the game in the process.  

Of course, online poker would have to first be identified as a genre that ISPs were required to block.  It’s not clear if ISPs will simply assume this is the case, but you would expect most to adopt a “ban first, ask questions later” approach rather than put their license to operate at risk.

If ISPs don’t act to block online poker sites , it will be up to Russian authorities to interpret the decision in a way that includes poker and then to pressure ISPs to comply.

Context: Internet Censorship in Russia

Internet censorship is not new in Russia. A law passed in 2004, that went into effect July 14, 2007 created the Federal List of Extremist Materials. This list according to Wikipedia includes:

Internet publications, for example an open letter by Voice of Beslan, some religious texts by Muslim theologians, Jehovah’s Witnesses publications, racist texts and books such as Mein Kampf and Zaveshchanie russkogo fashista, movies such as The Eternal Jew, songs, slogans (“Russia for Russians!”, “Orthodoxy or death!”), video files, brochures and websites.

ISPs are required already to block access to any items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. As of December 9, 2012 there are 1556 items on it.

There is also a separate list that the public does not have access to. This is the result of a new child protection law that went into effect November 1, 2012. While this law was created with the good intention of blocking child porn, drug use and suicide information, it was this same law that has YouTube blocked in several Russian locations.

The Moscow Times Article on ISPs Blocking Gambling includes additional commentary from security expert Andrei Soldatov who runs the Agentura.ru website. He maintains an internet censorship-monitoring program and also states a lot of censorship doesn’t get reported. His comment shared here was “Often, one phone call from law enforcement agencies is enough for providers to act — and we do not learn about that,”

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