The Department of Internal Affairs’ discussion document on online gambling in New Zealand has come under fire from all angles.

First, public health advocates slammed the paper for focusing on opening up the online market to New Zealand companies instead of achieving harm minimisation.

Now, digital rights advocates have taken aim at the Government for threatening to block access to overseas gambling sites.

The proposal is one of a handful in the document that examine cutting back on online gambling, but InternetNZ’s chief executive Jordan Carter says this is the wrong approach.

Internet service providers (ISPs) like Vodafone and Spark have also expressed opposition to the proposal.

Technical aspects murky

The notion of banning access to overseas gambling operators is not fleshed out in detail in the DIA discussion document.

“New Zealanders (and those residing in or visiting New Zealand) could be prohibited from visiting online gambling sites based overseas or domestically apart from those authorised by law and licensed to operate in the New Zealand market.

“A compliance strategy and prosecution guidelines would need to be developed by the Department of Internal Affairs,” it states.

The document also raises the idea of “geo-blocking”, but uses the term incorrectly.

Geo-blocking is when sites such as Netflix block access to American content from New Zealand. It is unlikely that gambling sites would voluntarily block Kiwis from accessing their products.

If the gambling sites themselves block New Zealanders from connecting then that would constitute as ‘geo-blocking’. However, if the Government is doing the blocking, this would in fact be government filtering of the Internet,” Carter said.

InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter (left) says New Zealand must think carefully before blocking any sections of the internet. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

DIA briefly engages with the concept that such a ban would amount to censorship, then dismisses it.

“The government geo-blocking or prohibiting access to gambling websites may raise issues of censorship, especially if used too broadly. However, only applying restrictions to unauthorised or noncompliant operators would be unlikely to raise these issues, provided the public had sufficient choice of gambling product.”

But Carter says that “New Zealand needs to make careful decisions about who should have the ability to block any parts of the Internet”. He also doesn’t think it will work.

“InternetNZ is very skeptical about the effectiveness of filtering the Internet for this purpose and thinks it’s likely to be unsuccessful.”

In a statement, a Vodafone spokesperson said: “We don’t believe that it is the role of the ISPs to police the internet. We will always block sites where we are required to block, and will continue to work with government agencies on instances where it may be appropriate to do so.

“However we won’t support requests to voluntarily block access to international online gambling sites on a blanket basis – this would need to be directed by relevant government agencies or legislation.”

As it stands, the Government is unable to demand any websites be blocked. ISPs voluntarily blocked access to websites distributing the manifesto and video produced by the alleged Christchurch shooter in the weeks after March 15.

Meanwhile, Spark’s corporate relations lead Andrew Pirie worried about the Government passing legislation to block websites.

“There is currently no provision under New Zealand law which compels internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to any overseas website, including online gaming sites,’ Pirie said.

“It would be a significant step for Government to consider imposing such a legislative requirement in respect of gaming sites, in isolation to consideration of the much bigger and broader issues regarding website access blocking that have become the subject of discussion following the Christchurch attacks.”

As it stands, the Government is unable to demand any websites be blocked. ISPs voluntarily blocked access to websites distributing the manifesto and video produced by the alleged Christchurch shooter in the weeks after March 15.

After the El Paso Walmart shooting in early August, Spark NZ and 2degrees also pledged to block the far-right 8chan message board if it reemerged.

DIA maintains a list of child pornography websites that it has asked ISPs to block, but this is a voluntary agreement.

Critics say proposals help SkyCity, not New Zealanders

The ban on gambling websites is framed as an “add-on” to any one of the four main proposals included in DIA’s paper.

These include sticking with the status quo, under which Lotto NZ and TAB are the only Kiwi organisations able to participate in online gambling; expanding the roster of online products that Lotto and TAB can operate; allow for the licensing of other domestic online gambling sites; or allowing for the licensing of domestic and international online gambling sites.

None of these would prohibit existing online gambling sites from profiting off of New Zealanders. Instead, DIA turned to the online censorship idea and a handful of other, better-sourced concepts as potential supplements.

These include working with credit card companies to stop credit cards from being used on gambling sites, which would prevent people from going into debt while gambling. The UK is considering a ban on credit card use on gambling websites.

DIA also floated the idea of blocking access to unauthorised sites on public wi-fi networks, which would pose fewer issues than the more controversial, nationwide proposal that raised InternetNZ’s ire.

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin is leading the Government’s work on online gambling reforms. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Nonetheless, critics have argued the document shows the Government is not looking out for the well-being of Kiwis, and is instead focused on maximising the profits of domestic gambling operators like SkyCity.

The Kiwi casino launched an online gambling site overseas in August and is eagerly awaiting the chance to run it in New Zealand.

“The Government has given us four options and one of them focuses on expanding what already exists, and two are about opening the market. I don’t think the harm aspect has been thought through,” Haylee Koroi, a Māori public health advocate, told Radio New Zealand.

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin did not answer questions about the proposed online ban, instead saying in a statement that “it’s a discussion document on online gambling so we’re after peoples’ views”.

“There are four general ‘options’ to guide that discussion, but people are free to put in any views or proposals they have. All of these will be considered in the policy work that will occur after submissions close at the end of September.”

The Department of Internal Affairs said it was unable to comment in time for publication.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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