UK Website Blocking Incoming Via New Gambling Commission Powers

May 10, 2024
The UK Gambling Commission will soon be able to block illegal websites via the white paper’s commitment to award the watchdog new powers, as the regulator continues its sometimes disputed fight against the black market.

The UK Gambling Commission will soon be able to block illegal websites via the white paper’s commitment to award the watchdog new powers, as the regulator continues its sometimes disputed fight against the black market.

Proposals to give the commission more tools to battle offshore gambling websites were announced in the gambling white paper just over a year ago, with minister Lucy Frazer saying they would empower the regulator, “to pursue court orders which require internet service and payment providers to take down or block access to illegal gambling sites”.

The ability to block access to websites has now appeared as part of the wide ranging Criminal Justice Bill, which would award several UK institutions new enforcement powers.

The bill is due to go before the House of Commons as part of its report stage on May 16, at which point MPs can suggest amendments ahead of the bill’s third and final reading.

The sections of the bill pertaining to the Gambling Commission specifically address internet protocol (IP) and internet domain blocking. It will allow the regulator to apply to a judge for a “suspension order” that empowers the commission to order internet service providers to block access to specific website domains or IP addresses.

The powers would also extend beyond the borders of the UK. The commission will be able to serve IP and domain blocking orders against companies based outside its usual jurisdiction, so long as it has evidence to believe they are being used to facilitate illegal gambling in the UK. 

The UK gambling black market does include operations based within the country, particularly those based around WhatsApp betting, but also consists of numerous offshore sites that target the country from websites based in various global jurisdictions.

IP and domain blocking of offshore gambling sites does currently take place through voluntary arrangements with UK-based internet companies and this is expected to continue even after new powers are put in place.

But the Criminal Justice Bill would empower the commission to take more concrete legal action against illegal operators with greater force than is currently possible.

The prospect of stronger protections for the UK’s licensed market was welcomed by one legal expert.

“At a time of increasingly burdensome regulation, it is critically important to legitimate gambling operators that the Gambling Commission tackle illegal and unlicensed operators,” said David Whyte, a partner with UK law firm Harris Hagan.

“Any strengthening of the Gambling Commission’s powers in this area is a positive step; however, the proposals are unlikely to quell legitimate operators’ concerns,” he said.

Whyte predicted that the commission will face an uphill battle to truly restrict the black market, even with its new powers.

“The effectiveness of the proposed powers in ‘blocking access’ will be driven by the Gambling Commission’s proactivity and effectiveness in identifying illegal sites and taking action (which has been called into question in the past), pitted against the speed at which new IP addresses and domain names can be created, and must be supported by more severe action by the Gambling Commission where appropriate,” he said.

The scale of the threat posed to licensed operators by the black market has been bitterly disputed in recent years.

In particular, racing interests have complained that planned affordability rules in the UK will drive players to an offshore market that is already cannibalising legal gambling.

The Gambling Commission, meanwhile, has expressed doubt that the black market is as threatening as some industry figures claim, even as it ramps up enforcement action.

In a speech at a regulator’s conference in Sweden this March, commission executive director Sarah Gardner said: “At the Gambling Commission we have consistently held the view that while illegal online gambling exists and presents a risk which of course must be managed, some of the descriptions of the scale and nature of the risks may be overblown.

“To be absolutely clear, because this message has often become misconstrued, the Gambling Commission has never denied that illegal gambling is a problem. On the contrary, protecting the integrity of our regulated market is absolutely central to what we do,” she said.

A spokesperson for the commission also pointed to several other methods it already uses to combat the offshore market.

Along with existing voluntary website takedown measures, the regulator issues cease and desist letters, works with payment providers to stop offshore payments, engages with search engines to remove links to illegal gambling and works with social media to take down posts promoting unlicensed gambling, they said.

IP blocking has become common enforcement practice in many countries, often through the maintenance of blocklists.

These lists often include numerous examples of very similar web addresses, demonstrating the nimbleness with which black market operators can spin up new sites to replace those that have been blocked.

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