Date: 24.05.2024

by Mateusz Mazur

“During my tenure online gaming regulation was either inexistent or in its infancy”

iGamingExpress spoke to Reuben Portanier, former CEO of the Malta Gaming Authority (MGA), now the Advisory & Compliance Partner at GTG.

How did your tenure as CEO of the Malta Gaming Authority shape your perspective on global gaming regulations?

I held the position of CEO at the Authority in a very critical period with respect to the direction gaming regulation was steering towards across the EU. 2010 saw the Court of European Justice (ECJ) first preliminary ruling in the case Santa Maria de Misericordia vs Bwin, which went contrary to previous ECJ rulings which had since 2004 fully upheld the freedom to provide services principle.

The Santa Casa vs Bwin preliminary ruling gave way to other rulings in the following years that could evoke an exception to EU Treaty on freedom to provide services, on the basis that Public Health could best be protected through a national regulatory framework, and thus we started seeing the first EU States regulating gaming on a national level, such as France and Italy at the time.

The European gaming regulatory landscape at the time was quite uncertain, and for a good 4 years, Brussels turned out to be my second office location due to the frequency of meetings held with EU gaming regulators to discuss on the applicability or otherwise of cross border measures such as in the fields of responsible gaming, anti money laundering, establishment of gaming companies, server hosting, technical standards, and the list goes on.

This situation naturally allowed me to obtain a very broad perspective on Eurogaming policy and was surely a key determining factor in giving me a certain perspective on European global regulations. Moreover, during my tenure, online gaming regulation at a global level was either inexistent or in its infancy, and being the CEO of one of the few regulatory bodies worldwide that had experience in gaming regulation was indeed an enriching experience, as we were in the unique position of shaping global regulatory principles.

What inspired you to start your own business, and how has your background in gaming regulation influenced its direction?

To be honest, whilst I still was the CEO at the MGA, I did not think that I would eventually start my own gaming advisory business. It all came naturally after I ended my 5 year term as CEO of the MGA, during my 9 month post CEO tenure when contractually I could not work in the gaming sector.

During that period I had time to think what was next and with the encouragement of a few friends, I set up my own practice, as it would have been a pity to put away so many years of experience in the sector. This was a precursor for my practice advising the European Commission on online Gaming technical standards, and to eventually merging with GTG Advocates in February 2018.

In your view, what are the most significant new technologies impacting the gambling industry today?

Without any shadow of doubt, Business Intelligence and now even more, Artificial Intelligence, are the technologies that can have a significant impact on the sector. AI has an infinite number of uses, which need to be managed with care though. The help AI can provide on profiling player activities and backgrounds in order to determine situations of problem gambling can be significant, although ethical matters and privacy matters would need to be seriously taken into account.

Another technology that could have an important impact in the sector, is that of embedded finance, whereby we could see some sort of technology fusion between the worlds of EMIs, Payments and Gambling.

How do you see regulatory frameworks evolving to accommodate emerging technologies in gambling?

Not all regulatory frameworks are the same. Some are very prescriptive, and thus have been unconsciously conceived to always significantly lag behind technological advancements. Other regulatory frameworks, that were cleverly designed to be future proof, by having a technology neutral legislation, are prone to be just slightly behind new technology advancements.

Malta for instance, has a technology neutral framework, which allows it to react faster to innovation, whilst certain countries, including Malta, also gave way to sandboxes, which in truth are the only route regulators and law makers have to test innovation in a regulated sector, albeit in a controlled environment. The more we will see law makers shift their mentality to designing regulation that is technology neutral and that allows for experimentation through sandboxes, the more we will see the time lag reduce between technology advancements and regulation.

What advice would you give to startups in the gaming sector looking to navigate regulatory complexities?

Being a start-up in 2024 is different to being a start-up in 2009. Fifteen years ago the gaming sector was still in its exponential growth stage, and back then the success rate of a start-up were much higher than today. This was also due to the sector being less complicated, having much less national regimes and having a less complex supply chain.

For today’s start-ups, having a disrupting concept is not enough. I would advice start-ups to ensure they have a strong board, that knows the industry but also knows how to get access to finance and venture capital. I always advice start-ups to take due account from the start of their Intellectual Property and to have an exit plan determining when they would be ready to sell their creation, as an exit plan sets the incentive to remain focused, whilst being ambitious to reach high achievements.

As a Board Member of the Malta Football Association, how do you address issues related to sports betting integrity?

I have been on the sport integrity panel of the Malta Football Association for the past decade. I do not hold a preventive role, as I judge upon alleged match fixing situations. What I do see however, is that there is a strong direct correlation between inadequate finance at club level and match-fixing. Whilst education is key, however financial sustainability is equally critical, as having players for instance not being paid there salaries due to financial difficulties can lead players to become vulnerable to illicit offers in order to make up for their unpaid salaries. Education and Finance are the key words to eradicate match fixing.

From your experience, how can the industry balance innovation with responsible gambling practices?

As in any sector, technology can be used ethically or unethically. If we had to take AI for instance, AI could be used to either learn a player’s patterns and background to prevent the same player to overdo it and potentially become a victim of problem gambling, whilst the same AI can use the same patterns and background to exploit such a player and entice him or her to bet beyond what they could afford for the advantage of the operator.

The serious operators however know that good business is based on responsible gaming and not on exploitation, as the latter indeed may generate short term high profits, but the serious operator is after long and sustained profits, which can only be achieved through the adoption of responsible gaming. The new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive of the EU (CSRD), which is based on ESG principles, can provide the medium to large gaming operators with a framework that will not only see that responsible gaming is part of the operator’s corporate strategy and technological innovative roadmap, but which will also see that responsible gaming results are audited and published, thus finally bringing a level of transparency that can auger will for the future in having operators embrace profits and innovation based on responsible gaming.