The UK gambling regulator says it has radically stepped up its enforcement against the black market, as its chief executive tells fellow regulators it is seeking a middle way between highly polarised pressure groups.
Speaking at the annual International Association of Gambling Regulators conference in Gaborone, Botswana, on Monday (October 18), UK Gambling Commission chief executive Andrew Rhodes said action against offshore operators had increased 500 percent since 2021.
While insisting that the black market “is not a significant concern” in the UK thanks to a high rate of channelisation, Rhodes nevertheless said the commission had “more than doubled the number of successful positive disruption outcomes” in the past year.
That disruption includes introducing geoblocking to prevent access to the top ten illegal domains and working with Google to block 17 websites from appearing in search results, he said.
The regulator has also partnered with Mastercard to remove payment facilities from illegal sites and is looking to work with other “household names” in the financial services industry, the CEO said.
Rhodes acknowledged the common challenge facing international regulators whereby illegal operators quickly launch new websites when access to existing domains is curtailed.
The commission chief executive said the regulator would “continue to study the impact of our interventions and respond accordingly” and “deepen our collaboration with partners in industry, tech and finance”, but was vague on exactly how it would combat this strategy.
The commission’s accelerating charge against the black market could be wielded to counter persistent complaints from some factions that impending affordability checks and other measures outlined in the UK government's white paper on gambling policy reforms will drive players offshore.
“Virtually every initiative is described by someone as being likely to drive everyone to the illegal market and will destroy the industry, or as being woefully inadequate by someone else,” said Rhodes, speaking to the highly polarised ends of the gambling debate in the UK.
“The last few years in our country have been difficult in this regard — and it is still very difficult — tensions run high and opinions are strong,” he said.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the consultation on affordability, officially known as financial risk checks, which closed on Wednesday (October 18).
The regulator has received thousands of responses and Rhodes has felt the need to publicly intervene multiple times to complain about what he sees as misleading commentary on the proposals.
In his speech in Botswana, the Gambling Commission boss appeared to be girding himself for yet another public perception battle in the years ahead, as the regulator prepares to roll out a new approach to tracking problem gambling in the UK.
Early trials of the commission’s new Gambling Survey of Great Britain suggest it will deliver a higher figure for the scale of problem gambling than previous official numbers.
“This, of course, is actually just a new baseline and does not mean there are more problem gamblers than before,” Rhodes said.
“There is a thorny issue of how some will still claim an increase, where this is misleading, but also arguments from those who have staked so much on a previous number who simply don’t want to see that number change, but also want to argue against the reason for making changes while relying on the same data set.”