More on Internet gambling

Re the proposed changes to the Lotteries Act it should be noted that none of them are not a sure thing. The proposals came from Ministry of Social Affairs and Health officials and will need political backing to go through. Some politicians, e.g National Coalition MP Arto Satonen (fi) and Green League MP Jyrki Kasvi (fi), have criticized the proposal to curb online poker by enabling losing players to get their money back. Outside of the Parliament, the Coalition Youth have expressed their disapproval (fi).

It's important, though, to have good arguments against the proposals, and on that front I'm afraid that these critics fall down a bit. For example, Satonen asks, "Is this how individual responsibility works? Do we really want to give young people the model, that you can gamble carefree even while drunk, and then afterwards have others pay for your losses?" The ministry of course argues - compellingly, I think - that it would never come to that. Should it be proved that Finnish pokers can effectively recoup their losses in courts, they would be barred from playing.

Satonen, Kasvi, and the Coalition Youth all propose setting up a national Internet poker site run by Finland's Slot Machine Association (RAY). The problem here is that the new service would have to compete with all the existing ones. The one competitive advantage I can think of is trustworthiness, but I kind of suspect that's only enough to attract a large market share if the non-licensed foreign competitors aren't superior in other fields, like quality of opponents, quality of software, and the house's profit margin.

Kasvi writes, "Finnish authorities could monitor its operation and legislation could mandate for example recognizing the signs of problem gambling, counseling to control playing, and recognizing and shutting out obvious professional players." Given that the signs of a professional player is that he plays quite a bit and tends to win, I'm not sure barring everyone who meets the description is going to make a new site very popular. I can also see professional players and losing poker addicts alike staying put in the Internet card rooms they currently frequent.

All that said, the proposals are worth opposing. Problem gambling just isn't that common and online poker trails behind slot machines in the gambling form of choice for the true addict. The Määttä report (fi, PDF) has some statistics on this and although it tries to paint the issue as a serious problem, the actual figures cited are pretty darned small. In 2003, about 5'500 people called a problem gambling help line; in 2006, the share of online gamblers among the callers was 14 percent; according to international studies, about 0.5 to three percent of people suffer from gambling related problems; and so on. Further, compared to e.g. excessive alcohol use, the externalities from problem gambling are tiny - fewer health problems, less crime, etc. The problem isn't widespread or intensive enough to justify restricting people's personal autonomy like the ministry proposes.

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