Safe bets: Fostering responsible iGaming

6 minute read
17 July 2023

The popularity of iGaming has soared in recent years, with online casinos and sports betting sites providing easy access to exciting wagering opportunities. However, it's important to acknowledge that gambling, in any form, carries inherent risks, including addiction and potential social and financial consequences.

Responsible gambling standards in Ontario.

For those operating iGaming services in Ontario, maintaining a balance between promoting their business and ensuring responsible gambling can be challenging. While the environmental controls available to land-based casinos, such as face recognition, are not available in the online space, regulatory bodies have implemented standards to create similar protections and foster responsible iGaming environments.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), the regulatory authority for the iGaming industry in the province, has prescribed responsible gambling standards (the Standards) that iGaming operators must adhere to. These standards encompass various minimum requirements for responsible gambling (RG), including the obligation to ensure that players are "fit for play."

While the risk-based approach of such broad requirements offers operators flexibility in implementing compliant environments and practices, it also introduces ambiguity regarding compliance with each operator's specific practices.

What does "fit for play" mean in an online environment?

The "fit for play" requirement entails that players confirm their readiness to engage in iGaming activities before participating on an iGaming site. While this requirement is relatively straightforward to enforce in physical establishments where staff can monitor players for signs of intoxication, monitoring online engagement poses inherent challenges.

Currently, iGaming sites typically ask players to confirm their fitness to play through a pop-up window and check-box. However, it remains uncertain whether this approach alone satisfies the Standards, as the phrase "fit for play" lacks a precise definition in the Standards or in case law. Operators must infer that it refers to a state of mental fitness that enables players to engage in iGaming without incurring significant negative consequences or health risks.

Being "fit for play" means participating in online gambling responsibly and in a controlled manner, without risking addiction, financial problems, or other adverse outcomes. It entails maintaining a healthy balance between the activity and other aspects of one's life, such as work, family, and social obligations.

Ensuring that players are "fit for play" poses challenges for iGaming operators. Practically speaking, operators must ultimately rely on players' self-assessment of their readiness, even though the RG obligations are imposed on the operator and non-compliance can result in significant risks, including fines. The AGCO takes breaches of the Standards seriously and has not hesitated to impose substantial fines.

Moreover, there are potential litigation risks for operators regarding RG matters, as Ontario courts have not provided clear guidance on whether gambling establishments owe a duty of care to their customers.

What is the voluntary self-exclusion program?

Another RG requirement outlined in the Standards is the implementation of a voluntary self-exclusion program. This program allows individuals concerned about or demonstrating signs of problematic or addictive gambling behavior to exclude themselves from a gaming site for a predetermined period or indefinitely.

However, effectively implementing such programs faces practical challenges, including identifying individuals with gambling problems who may not publicly exhibit symptoms. These challenges are magnified in the online environment, as individuals can create multiple accounts or register with different online gambling sites to bypass self-exclusion measures.

In an effort to address this issue, iGaming Ontario (iGO), which assists the AGCO in regulating the iGaming industry, intends to introduce a mandatory centralized self-exclusion program in the future, although it has not yet been implemented. Consequently, operators should explore additional measures to prevent individuals with gambling problems from engaging in online gambling.

While the above highlights some of the RG requirements defined in the Standards to cultivate a safe and responsible online gambling environment and mitigate the risks of fines or litigation, operators must adhere to all sections of the Standards without exception. Additionally, they should remain attentive to any other RG obligations identified by the AGCO and iGO.

Navigating complex regulatory changes.

To navigate the complex regulatory framework required by the AGCO and iGO, operators, and those looking to become operators, are advised to seek qualified legal counsel. Collaborating with experienced legal counsel will enable companies to stay ahead of regulatory changes and minimize exposure to fines, penalties, or the potential revocation of their operator's licence.  

For any inquiries or assistance in navigating through the intricacies of the Ontario iGaming market, please reach out to the Gowling WLG Gaming Law Group.

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