Online Poker Legislation from Around the World
One of the most confusing legal problems of our time has to do with the Internet, and how countries are allowed to regulate an industry that connects billions of people around the world, in hundreds of different countries. And in all of that confusion, and conflicting laws, is the matter of online gaming (poker in particular receiving a lot of attention) which is just as confusing.
So, while some countries have left the industry completely untouched and unregulated, and others are starting to move towards regulation or outright banning of the industry, and in this article I’ll try to provide you with the nuts and bolts of what is going on in the world regarding online poker legislation.
The problems these countries attempting to ban online poker are facing are two-fold: Enforcement and violation of International laws. Despite their efforts, not even China or the US has been able to ban online poker, and plenty of EU countries have found their attempts to legislate the online gaming market in violation EU laws –even the US has had their attempts to thwart online poker sites criticized as violating International trade agreements.
Basically, everything dealing with the Internet falls into an international legal gray area, and online poker is no different. Who is to say that an online operator in Ireland (where this is a legal business) is breaking the law of another country by offering his product there? And how is the nation that feels he is breaking the law going to prosecute him? The home country cannot extradite in these cases since he isn’t breaking the law in their country, in fact he is operating within the law! As you can see, online poker legislation can be very messy, and there is still no real consensus on how these problems are going to be solved.
When it comes to online poker legislation around the world the first thing you need to know is that virtually every country/state/region is handling this burgeoning, but still new, industry in their own way; which makes for a number of different, contradictory, often unenforceable, and sometimes downright strange laws. Exemptions are carved out for one slice of the industry or another and restrictions are easily bypassed by online gaming providers.
The second thing you need to realize is that online poker is still relatively new, and the laws pertaining to the industry are liable to change on a dime, especially in countries where the market is completely unregulated or relying on antiquated laws that do not specifically address online gaming (most countries that have passed online poker legislation, one way or the other, are far less likely to see radical changes to their laws, but countries like the US or Australia who have yet to pass any legislation on the matter could see an overnight change in either direction).
In this article my goal is to give you a comprehensive rundown of the different online poker markets around the globe, focusing on the legality and regulations of each country/state/region as well as their connection to the global market. For the sake of space (this article will be lengthy enough as it is) I have limited the countries and regions discussed to the most prominent online poker markets, or to places that have been on the cutting edge of legislative efforts.
The History of online gaming and legislative efforts around the world
While Planet Poker was the first online poker site to hit the Internet in 1998, online gaming had already been a reality for at least three years, and more likely closer to four years depending on who you believe. According to Wikipedia:
“In 1994 the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda passed the Free Trade & Processing act, allowing licences to be granted to organisations applying to open online casinos.Before online casinos, the first fully functional gambling software was developed by Microgaming, an Isle of Man based software company. This was secured with software developed by CryptoLogic, an online security software company. Safe transactions became viable and led to the first online casinos in 1994.
“The first online casino has been debated, though many claim InterCasino was the first in 1995. Research carried out by Onlinegambling.com suggests the first online casino was in fact Microgaming’s Gaming Club, opened in October 1994. 1996 saw the establishment of the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, which regulated online gaming activity from the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake and issues gaming licences to many of the world’s online casinos and poker rooms. This is an attempt to keep the operations of licensed online gambling organisations fair and transparent.”
What this means is that for over 15 years, countries have been trying to figure out how to deal with Internet Gambling, and after 15 years we have a hodgepodge of different, often hypocritical, laws that are often unenforceable.
Basically there are four schools of thought when it comes to online poker legislation:
- School #1 – Do nothing.
This is the approach that a lot of countries chose early on, and some are still adhering to. Some countries like the US have passed ubiquitous laws that nibble at the edges of industry, making it seem as if they are intent on banning poker (when in fact the US seems to be paving the way for its companies to have complete control of the industry). Other countries rely on older laws and try to apply them to the online gaming industry –which hasn’t worked out at all.
Practitioners of the DO NOTHING school of thought are basically pretending the industry doesn’t exist, leaving their residents at the mercy of the industry.
- School #2 – Legalize and tax the industry.
This is the path that countries like the UK have chosen, and it seems to be the simplest and most straightforward way to handle something as global as online poker. This school of thought says, since we can’t control this industry let’s just get what we can from it.
While probably not as profitable for their coffers as School of Thought #3, this path does allow them to pretty much wipe their hands of the industry, while at the same time taking in some money through taxation.
- School #3 – Legalize, tax, and regulate the industry within your own borders.
Like the countries that have decided to legalize and tax online poker, the countries that have set up their own regulatory bodies realize controlling the industry is out of the question, but unlike School #2 practitioners they have decided to go a step further; cutting their players off from the global market and forcing online poker operators to set up shop inside their borders.
While this is bad for the players, since they are cut off from vast swaths of other poker players around the world, these countries have made their licensing and regulations fairly easy, so most of the larger sites are willing to jump through their hoops in order to stay on the good side of the law within these locales.
This method allows these countries to not only get every tax dollar they possibly can, but also allows them to charge exorbitant licensing fees.
- School #4 – Ban online gaming.
This one boggles the mind for most poker players, since this is basically as unenforceable a law as you can pass. Many countries have made it illegal to operate an online poker room, but since these companies are located offshore (in locales where it IS legal to operate an online poker room) there is little a government can do unless an online operator decides to travel within that country –which has happened.
Here is a look at some of the laws passed in major online poker markets around the globe.
Regulated Online Poker Markets
- The United Kingdom
The UK is one of the most gambling-friendly markets in the world. Whether you focus on live poker, sports-betting or online poker, the UK offers their residents a safe, legislated, and regulated market, as well as very favorable tax laws – Gambling winnings are not taxed in the United Kingdom.
Online poker players in the UK find themselves able to participate as part of the global poker player-base, as there are no restrictions keeping foreign operators from providing online poker games to UK residents –provided they are operating in a legal manner in their country of origin and overseen by a reputable regulatory body. This allows online poker players from the UK to choose from virtually any site in the world when deciding on where to play.
While the players in the UK get a pass on taxation, online poker sites operating in the UK bear the tax burden. While this is very good for players on the surface, it does drive away some operators from the UK, and like any other company would do, UK online poker providers often offset this tax by passing it onto the players in the form of higher rake or less in the way of promotions.
Like the UK, Ireland has chosen to take a ‘legalize and regulate’ approach toward online poker. Irish players can pick from virtually any online poker room of their choosing, so long as the site is licensed and regulated in their home country. Ireland does tax these foreign operators, as well as domestic operators, with much of the profit going to shore-up the ailing horse-racing industry on the Emerald Isle.
Ireland does differ from the UK in that online poker companies operating in Ireland need to adhere to not only the regulations from their home country, but also the strict regulations imposed by the Irish government (a sort of double regulation). These operators must also pay licensing fees and fall under Ireland’s tax code.
Ireland has also followed in the UK’s footsteps in terms of taxes on gambling winnings: NONE. For the players anyway; online poker operators in Ireland are taxed (and taxed fairly heavily). However, even though the government will not tax your gambling winnings, players winning large sums of money at the online poker tables should keep meticulous records, lest the government feel you received that money by means of another revenue stream.
France was among the first European countries to legalize and regulate online poker, but only within its own borders. Like Italy before them, and Belgium after, France decided the best way to handle online poker was to grant licenses and regulate the industry themselves. In doing so the country controls who is allowed to play on licensed online poker sites (only players in France can participate in games on regulated sites) and how they would tax these companies.
Similar to Italy, in order for an online poker site to receive a license to operate in France they must have their operations located in France, and must dole out a pricey licensing fee and of course pay taxes on all revenues.
Recently France has joined with other countries calling for ISP’s to ban all unlicensed online poker rooms still operating within their borders; proving that even very comprehensive legislation has not been able to eradicate unlicensed operators from providing games to willing players – Are you hearing this United States DOJ?
Italy was the first country that sought to Balkanize the online poker world. Italy legalized online poker back in 2009, but players were only permitted to play on sites regulated through the government, and these sites had to operate inside Italy, ban all non-Italian players from their games, and at the time only offer real-money online poker tournaments (a law that has since changed, and Italians can now play in both cash games and tournaments).
Canada, because of its many independent provinces, has a bit of a convoluted legislation record when it comes to online poker. What may be legal and well regulated in one province, could prove to be unregulated in another.
The good news is that since online poker is either regulated, or unregulated, Canadians will have no issues with their government should they play online poker –nowhere in the country is it a crime to play online poker. So, while certain provinces have gotten the ball rolling towards legislation, in other provinces it’s only illegal to be the provider of online gaming, and since the operators are all offshore, they cannot be prosecuted by the Canadian government.
As more and more Canadian provinces move toward legislation, it seems only a matter of time before the entire country gets out of the legal gray area.
Belgium has followed in the footsteps of France and Italy, setting up their own online poker licensing and regulatory body. Players in Belgium are only allowed to participate in online poker games offered by sites licensed by the government, and these games are restricted to Belgians only.
Germany is in the process of passing their own online poker legislation, which would open up one of the largest European poker markets for the first time. At the time of writing all but one of the German states has approved online poker legislation, making online poker all but inevitable in the country.
The first state to pass online gaming legislation was Schleswig-Holstein. The Parliament of the state narrowly passed its online gambling legislation in 2011, making it the first part of Germany to offer legal online poker games. The legislation is still being worked out, but according to CasinoAdvisor.com:
“The online gambling verticals that will be allowed under this legislation include betting exchanges, sports books, poker and all online casino games except roulette, blackjack and baccarat. The law will come into effect from January 1 2012 and the licenses will be issued from March 1, 2012. There is no limit on the number of licenses that can be issued. The state will earn 20% gross profits tax on all products.”
Unregulated Online Poker Markets
- The United States
By far, the United States has decided to take one of the most perplexing and exhausting stances on online poker in the world. Despite a 2006 law (that paved the way for later events) known as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) that made it a crime for financial institutions to process transactions from illegal online gaming sites, the government has never passed legislation for or against online poker, leaving the term “illegal online gaming sites” open to interpretation.
Making the poker world are the more perplexed is the fact that the US is the largest online poker market in the world, and even with UIGEA in place, US players were by far the most prolific segment of the online poker market. Of course, in 2011 the US Department of Justice shut-down several of the top online poker rooms serving US customers (PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute/UB Poker) which effectively banned online poker in the US.
While there are still some providers operating in the US, Black Friday (as it became known) was just the beginning, as other sites were also targeted in the following months including the Yatahay Poker Network, Bodog, and the Everleaf Poker Network.
States are beginning to take on the task of passing online poker legislation, as it seems the federal government simply isn’t going to act at this time. So even though it appears it is going to take some time, online poker legislation in the United States seems inevitable at this point.
Nevada is already accepting licenses from online poker operators, who must adhere to a number of stipulations to even be considered. Among the restrictions under the Nevada online poker law are the following:
- All players must be 21 years of age
- Players may not transfer funds to one another (inter-account transfers)
- Players are allowed only a single account per operator
- Operators must keep all hand histories for a five-year period
- Operators must take appropriate action to insure players are of age
- Operators must take appropriate action to insure poker bots are not being used
- Initial licenses will only be granted to existing Nevada Gaming Control Board license holders
This last [bolded] part is important, since it has led to many online poker operators partnering with existing brick & mortar casinos in Nevada. Sites like bwin.Party have joined forces with the MGM, while 888 has formed a partnership with Caesar’s Entertainment.
My guess is that once Nevada starts collecting the $250,000 licensing fees, and tax dollars from online poker site start rolling into the state’s coffers, pretty much every state in the country will suddenly start to realize precisely what they are missing out on.
Another major poker market that has decided to not address the online poker industry is Australia. At this time the only law that online poker is even loosely associated with is the 2001 Interactive Gambling Act (IGA). The IGA states that it is unlawful to provide interactive gambling (online gambling) to any Australian resident. That said, the law has little teeth, considering all online poker operators operate offshore (thus cannot be prosecuted in Australia) and the law doesn’t make it illegal to PLAY online poker.
Not only are the countries laws on gaming loosely enforced (and virtually unenforceable as written), but Australia does license and regulate online sports-books, so it would seem that the country is trending towards a legal and regulated online poker industry.
Australian poker players can be taxed, but only if it is proven that the player is a professional poker player. Amateur and recreational poker players are not taxed under Australian law. Coincidentally, Joe Hachem somehow convinced an Australian court that he was an amateur player after winning the 2005 WSOP, which means Mr. Hachem earned $7.5 million all tax-free!
- New Zealand
Like their close neighbor, New Zealand is also avoiding online poker legislation either for or against. And like Australia, New Zealand relies on an outdated and general law that is virtually unenforceable: The Gambling Act of 2003, which makes it illegal for any business other than the TAB and the New Zealand Lotteries Commission to operate remote interactive gambling in New Zealand.
The Gambling Act, like the Interactive Gambling Act passed in Australia, only targets providers (who all reside offshore and therefore outside of New Zealand’s authorities reach) and makes no mention of prohibiting players from participating in online gaming.
New Zealand tax law is a bit complicated (like tax law virtually anywhere in the world tends to be) but the general rule of thumb is that gambling winnings are not taxable. However, there have been cases of the government going after gambling winnings, so it’s best to find a tax professional in the country to see what the best course of action for you would be.
The largest South American market is starting to come to terms with online poker, or should I say poker in general. The home of the 2016 Olympics has recently granted poker the status of a game of skill. Online poker itself is not allowed, but neither is it actually prohibited. So like the bulk of nations around the globe, Brazil is taking the wait-and-see approach to online poker laws, letting the industry and political trends determine which way the country takes its legislative efforts in the future.
Markets Where Online Poker has Been Banned
- Washington State, USA
One state in the United States has passed online poker legislation*, unfortunately it was to prohibit it! The move by Washington State was a bit of a surprise, considering the state is not overly conservative, and many other states are looking at legalizing the industry, not banning it –not even the most conservative southern states in the US are pushing legislation to ban online poker.
*As noted above, Nevada has recently passed legislation and is on its way to offering its residents online poker. At the time of writing, 24 operators have applied for an online poker license from the state of Nevada.
Russia has a no frills policy: Online gaming is absolutely illegal in Russia. Despite the ban, as any online poker knows, there are plenty of Russians sitting at the online poker tables –so it seems that the Russian legislation banning online poker doesn’t quite have the teeth it was intended to have.
Online poker is a punishable offense in one province of India, Maharashtra. Under the “Bombay Wager Act” players can be prosecuted if they are caught playing online poker in the state. It’s unclear what type of enforcement this law receives, and fortunately for the rest of the over 1 billion Indians, no other province has any specific laws governing online poker.
Even though The Israel Gambling Law (Israeli Penal Law 5737 – 1977) doesn’t mention online gaming (it was passed in 1977 so that would have been some serious foresight if it did!), in 2005 the Attorney General of the country decided that the law did apply to online gaming and ordered all online gambling operations, including backgammon although this was later altered, to cease operating in the country. Credit card companies were also ordered to cease cooperating with online gambling websites. In 2007 the site Play65 (a very popular backgammon site) was given an exemption to the ruling.
In China online poker is blocked through Government firewall, but as any online poker player knows, there are plenty of ways Chinese residents can get around this. It doesn’t seem as if the Chinese government has any interest in stopping their residents from playing online poker, and many foreigners have said that Internet access in their hotel rooms does not block most of the major online poker sites.
The Future of Online Poker
So in which way is the zeitgeist blowing? It appears that more countries are working towards regulation than are working towards banning online poker, which is a good thing. More and more locales are learning that enforcement of any law prohibiting online poker works about as well as prohibition of alcohol did in the 1920’s in the US. So when laws you have enacted do nto curtail the behavior and are for all intents and purposes unenforceable the only logical decision is to legalize and regulate the activity.
Of course some nations are a lot slower at this type of legislation movement than others, but in the end it appears that within the next decade the overwhelming majority of the world will be playing on legal, licensed, and regulated online poker sites.
The real million-dollar question is whether or not the industry will continue to be Balkanized, or if different countries will allow for an international online poker market –which would be much harder to tax and license, so as with everything else it will likely come down to which way is the most profitable for all parties concerned!
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