Canada's growing interest in Internet gaming

The Edmonton Sun carried an interesting article on Canadian online gambling this week, quoting extensively from the Lethbridge University academic Robert Williams, a name becoming synonymous with negative views on the subject.

The academician fears an onslaught of problem gambling in Canada as a result of the growing interest in Internet gaming, where he claims that accessibility and better payout rates due to lower overheads are attracting more punters.

Williams has carried out informative research and produced useful information, and this was showcased in the Edmonton Sun piece.

His claims that free-play results at online casinos are better than real-money gambling in order to deceptively entice players and take their money are arguable, but his studies have shown that underage gamblers use free-play facilities extensively, and then run into trouble when they reach gambling age and play for real money.

Half of North American high school and post-secondary students have played on free-play online gambling sites, he says his studies have shown, along with the interesting fact that in Canada the average monthly loss of individual Internet gamblers is $541 compared to an $82 loss for all gamblers.

Williams's estimate that worldwide revenues from online gambling will reach $20 billion in 2008 will raise eyebrows, but he claims that this is based upon his as yet unpublished report written in conjunction with the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre.

Canadian levels of problem gambling are around 3 percent, says Williams, but this is growing and the majority of online gambling revenue comes from this morally questionable source.

The Kahnawake First Nation online gambling licensing jurisdiction near Montreal is mentioned prominently in the article, with Williams commenting that despite Canadian restrictions confining gambling to provincially approved operators, the enclave is host to some 300 to 400 Internet gambling websites.

"The Mohawks there are so militant in advancing their sovereignty issues and it's such a sensitive area for the Quebec government that they choose not to prosecute," Williams told the Edmonton Sun, pointing out that "ridiculously low" fees of $10 000 are charged, resulting in an offshore flow of "enormous" profits.

Other First Nation groups may also be quietly running Internet gambling sites, adds Williams. "My guess is some of them are operating but they're trying to be as low-key about it as they can because they know they'll get prosecuted if they become more public."

In fact, Canadians playing online poker could potentially be charged, since online gambling is supposed to be provincially regulated. But the law is unclear on whether it's illegal to bet on an online offshore site because of the jurisdictional issue, says Williams.

The academic is against further legalisation of Internet gambling in Canada, which he says is currently only offered provincially in the provinces of British Columbia and Atlantic Canada.

"The entire trend towards Internet gambling is a dangerous one," he says, noting that the rates of problem gambling are much higher with online games.

"No doubt (online gambling) is almost impossible to prohibit," he says. "But that doesn't mean you throw in the towel."

The Edmonton Sun writer offered a personal opinion: "I'd argue that if people are going to gamble anyway, it's better to regulate it carefully and reap the economic benefits while boosting services for problem gamblers. After all, the genie's out of the bottle."

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