20.03.2023

by Maciej Akimow

Maarten Haijer: It’s important that operators take their representation in society seriously

We invite you to our interview with Maarten Haijer, Secretary General, European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA). In the long conversation we discussed topics of responsible gaming, possible international cooperation against the background of individual European markets, regulatory changes in a world of changing technology, but also state monopolies using the example of Finland. 

Maciej Akimow: What does it mean to be socially responsible in igaming world? 

Maarten Haijer: Being socially responsible for online gambling operators means having long-term customers who enjoy having a bet, do so within their financial means, and consider gambling for what it is – a popular form of entertainment. Our members take their responsibilities very seriously and are constantly working to provide their customers with a safe and enjoyable customer experience. To support this, they are communicating more than ever to their customers about safer gambling – this includes making customers aware of the risks of gambling, promoting the safety tools available, and signposting where customers can get help if they need it. In addition to this, our members are also investing in a strong culture of safer gambling at corporate level, with 80% of their European employees having received dedicated safer gambling training. While being socially responsible requires operators to make the necessary investments in the latest safer gambling technologies and tools, it also means taking public concerns about advertising seriously. Ahead of the upcoming World Cup, our members took stock of their obligations as responsible advertisers, by publishing the results of the first independent monitoring exercise of EGBA’s responsible advertising code, which they apply across their European operations.

One of the most important news from last weeks is the fact that CEN have approved EGBA proposal to establish European standards on markers harm. Is it some kind of break point of international discussions?

The eventual CEN standard will lead to a commonly agreed, international and standardised list of markers of harm, based on the best available research, which operators in Europe can use to help them detect problem gambling behaviour in a more accurate and timely way. EGBA and its members will be pro-actively contributing to the development of the standard and sharing their expertise in that process, but other operators and experts can also become involved through their national standardisation bodies, and we encourage them to do so. The process itself of creating the standard provides an invaluable opportunity for stakeholders from right across Europe to come together, to enhance international cooperation by pulling their expertise and collaborating on an issue of joint importance: safer gambling. Being able to identify problem gambling behaviour much earlier could really transform the industry and help to prevent gambling-related harm from occurring in the first place.

Almost all european countries have their own vision and perception of right way to grow the local markets. Is it possible to still work with the correct pattern in fragmented igaming world? Do you think that the biggest companies should show the correct way? 

At EGBA we have always argued for a more European approach. Each EU member state has its own different rules for controlling gambling activity and, as a result, there are undeniably 27 mini online gambling markets which look and are different, work mostly in isolation from each other, and are underpinned by national regulation of what is a relatively borderless activity. The fragmented regulatory environment poses many unnecessary challenges to regulators, consumers and operators – it disadvantages customers because they are not treated equally across all EU member states which means their experiences are different, it creates a difficult enforcement environment for national gambling authorities, and it adds burdens of administrative replication and cost for operators, particularly those who are active in multiple markets. EGBA members had a combined total of 225 online gambling licenses across 21 European countries in 2021 and, while they have their own internal corporate policies and strategies which they apply across their entire operations, it’s no easy task to comply with the multitude of different and very complex national regulatory requirements which they face.

What is your perspective about synergy between properly legislation and responsible gaming? 

With demands on safer gambling continuing to grow across European countries, it’s important that operators take their representation in society seriously to ensure the sector has a sustainable future. If they don’t do that, society will respond, and ever stricter regulation will become inevitable and impact their ability to continue to do business. Both individual companies and the sector as a whole needs to work towards a stronger culture of responsibility and cooperation so that the industry is better placed to respond maturely to regulators and policy makers – and their concerns. This requires the sector to do more to introduce and apply self-regulatory measures and take their application seriously. At the same time, regulation is also so important, and the sector needs regulatory frameworks that are predictable, stable, evidence based, and mindful of customer behaviour. These frameworks should benefit customers and ensure they remain within the regulated market – because this is where they are best protected against black-market operators who are unaccountable and offer none of the protections of the regulated industry. Regulation should always be designed in a way that ensures the regulated market is always more attractive to customers than the black market so that a high-level of consumer protection is upheld.

Why there’s still a lot of companies that can’t understand that promoting responsible gaming is going to help their business? 

There are still far too many operators that sit on the periphery of our sector, seem very little concerned about their position in wider society, don’t contribute to the sector’s representation and choose not to participate to trade associations like EGBA or its national partner associations. Their attitude not only damages themselves but also continues to bring the rest of the sector down with them. Taking safer gambling seriously requires commitment and resources and, unfortunately, some companies still see this as a cost. The biggest challenge the industry faces right now is being able to respond maturely to the continued pressure of increasing regulation. Angrily pointing fingers at the outside world isn’t mature nor is it going to resolve anything. The sector needs to acknowledge that the pressure is there, ask ourselves why we’re seeing more rules and take more responsibility for our own actions. Taking responsibility requires commitment from the most senior levels of leadership of gambling operators and I’m hopeful because I’ve seen a lot of progress in recent years. For 2023, I hope for a more engaged, constructive, and outwardly looking industry, and joining forces in trade associations like EGBA is a positive and cost-effective way of encouraging that.

As EGBA do you have any recommendations for each regulated markets to be ahead with the fast changing technology? How do to it smart to do not block the grow of businesses? 

Regulatory frameworks should be predictable and stable – but also not static – and should be updated to reflect the changing technological landscape. Many of the challenges faced by the online gambling sector are common and cross-border in nature and that is why greater cooperation in general, particularly around safer gambling, is so important. Cooperation can help operators, regulatory authorities, and other stakeholders, to share information, learnings, and best practices about self-regulatory and regulatory initiatives that work well, and those that don’t, and create a more supportive ecosystem in general. It’s in all our interests to have online gambling markets which are well-regulated, well-channelled, and have a high level of consumer protection.

While advertising restrictions may seem like an easy political choice for some policymakers, advertising is the only tool to sign-post the locally regulated and licensed gambling market, depriving licensed operators from being able to advertise creates a level playing field between them and the thousands of black market websites which are out there, are easily accessible, do not pay tax or apply sufficient consumer protections, but can still advertise to European customers through various channels despite any local advertising bans. That is not to say that as a sector, we should not take stock of our obligations as responsible advertisers. There is public concern about the volume and content of advertising, and we need to listen to those concerns. But severe restrictions, such as bans, are not the answer. The industry needs to work with regulatory authorities to find balanced solutions – and the concerns of industry and regulators should also be listened to by those making the laws.

What is your opinion about state monopoly? Finland is a good example and pick of discussion. Do we see more benefits or losses?

In Finland, we would like to see progress in moving beyond the exclusive monopoly system. It’s pleasing to see greater public discussion about the future of the country’s monopoly system in recent times. Clearly, a monopoly system for online gambling does not work, we know that it’s not an optimal tool for regulating online gambling, and it’s time that Finland explored alternatives, including the pros and cons of introducing a multi-licensing system. The benefits of introducing a licensing system far outweigh the costs. Multi-licensing would lead to more Finns playing in the regulated market where they are protected by Finnish laws, generate more taxes for the Finnish state, and, by reducting offshore gambling, it would also importantly enable the Finnish authorities to exercise more control over their online gambling market. Replacing the exclusive monopoly system with a multi-licensing framework would also create a level playing field where all companies who want to be in the market – including the current monopoly operator – apply the same rules and standards. It really is a win-win.

Do you think that it will be the example that open wide market and some sort of auto regulation will be better in long term perspective?

Europe’s gambling market is worth over €100 billion each year, with many millions of Europeans participating in it. But Europe’s current online gambling regulations are still highly fragmented. Since the launch of the EU Digital Single Market, the European Commission has been committed to deepening integration of the digital economy and ensuring consumers are better protected online. But that has not been the case for the millions of Europeans who gamble online. The most recent European Commission Communication on online gambling in Europe is from 2012 and, given the major technological and regulatory developments since then, it is out of date. EGBA has previously called on the Commission to review the implementation of its initiatives on online gambling to ensure EU citizens have equal treatment and the same, high level of consumer protection irrespective of where they live, and to reinstate the EU Expert Group for national gambling regulators so there is a coherent cooperation framework where regulators can jointly tackle the big issues affecting Europe’s online gambling sector. We also want the Commission to make the single market work for EU-established online gambling operators so they can provide their services without undue administrative burdens in EU member states and are supported in this process by the enforcement of EU law – because currently this is not the case.

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