The spotlight on responsible gambling has grown ever brighter during 2020, as global mandated lockdowns forced hundred of millions of individuals worldwide to limit social interactions and, perhaps most crucially, stay at home for extended periods.

Armed with WiFi and, in some cases. numerous devices, increasing regulatory pressure in certain jurisdictions has also ramped up as certain aspects of the online ecosystem become faced with increasing questions.

With Safer Gambling Week, a cross-industry initiative to promote safer gambling in the United Kingdom and Ireland, just over the horizon (November 19-25), CasinoBeats spoke to Will Mace, co-founder of EQ-Connect.

The start-up seeks to enable operators to share data on their at-risk players, allowing them to be protected wherever they choose to play.

CB: At what stage are we at in the responsible gambling debate?

WM: With the government and the DCMS expected to imminently launch a strategic review the future direction of the gambling industry is hanging in the balance.

There are several gambling reformists including the all-party parliamentary group on gambling harm and a group of more than 150 peers in the House of Lords. They are pushing for stricter affordability checks and duty of care measures to protect the vulnerable such as reducing the speed of gameplay, limiting stakes, and starting a testing process to measure the risk of new products.

We feel strongly, however that bans and limits make for easy headlines and fail to address the existing challenges and long-term solutions. If the industry is to make sustainable progress and significantly reduce harm, we must adopt a collaborative, data-driven approach to first identifying and then protecting at risk players addressing the protection of at-risk players.

A key challenge in our view … is keeping players safe when operators only have a partial view of their behaviour”

CB: Is gambling safer today than it was five years ago?

WM: The gambling industry is a far safer place for players today than it has been in the past with regulation bringing additional safeguards, clearer consumer guidelines and more ways to seek help, however it still has a long way to go. There are still far too many cases of significant harm being suffered and we must use the technology and expertise we have at our disposal to address these cases more closely and make a more impactful and long-lasting difference.

According to Health Survey England 2018 figures 2.7 per cent of adults were considered low-risk gamblers, 0.8 per cent were classed as moderate-risk gamblers, and a further 0.5 per cent were classified as problem gamblers. Low risk is defined as gamblers who experience a low level of problems, with few or no identified negative consequences.

From this data, 96 per cent of adults are not at-risk. This is not to seek to marginalise, or to downplay the problem in any way, but rather to highlight that not every gambler is at risk of harm and so blanket measures are simply inappropriate. It is clearly possible to enjoy more than the occasional flutter without risking harm and without needing such patrician protection.

CB: What are the greatest challenges facing the industry at present within responsible gaming?

WM: A key challenge in our view, as well as that of the Gambling Commission, is keeping players safe when operators only have a partial view of their behaviour, with vulnerable individuals able to bounce from one site to another without any joined up oversight or protection.

At EQ Connect we have developed technology that can solve this hidden threat. Our technology is aimed solely at the issue of potentially vulnerable players moving from one site to another without being monitored correctly, leaving them open to potential harm.

Further change for everyone involved in this industry is inevitable”

We look at all the sites that a single player plays on, analyse behavioural patterns, and calculate a player risk score creating a cross-operator view which does not exist at present. We feel this is crucial to unlocking real progress within responsible gaming and achieving significant results to reducing harm in the long-term.

CB: Where should the industry be focusing its attention and investing resources to ensure it has a sustainable future?

WM: Further change for everyone involved in this industry is inevitable as external pressure on responsible gambling approaches boiling point.

The most vocal lobby wants to make gambling safer through a series of headline-grabbing blanket measures, universally applied to all. The language used is primarily of control, of bans and boundaries, seeking to prohibit ‘all advertising, sponsorship, marketing, and inducements’ and to impose stake, deposit and prize limits.

They assume that anything more than the occasional flutter is some sort of sign of delinquency, that requires legislation to protect against, but they don’t seem to allow for the fact it may be possible to enjoy more than a bet or spin or two, without risk of suffering harm. 

CB: How can the industry balance the need to do more to protect those that are at risk while allowing those that are not at-risk to gamble as they wish?   

WM: We firmly believe that the direction of change should be focused on data-driven and collaborative approach where the priority on the identification of at-risk players followed by subsequent interaction with them to reduce risk and prevent harm.  

While this requirement does currently exist in the LCCP (licence provisions), the House of Lords Select Committee felt it so important that they recommended making the identification and prevention of harm one of the UK Gambling Commission’s central statutory aims. Disappointingly, there has been little focus on this recommendation in much of the subsequent discourse.  

It will take investment, collaboration, and bold leadership”

We feel the recommendation should go further. The Commission should clearly define and describe what it means by the identification and prevention of harm – and it should set a very high bar. It should specify a minimum standard – a machine learning based behavioural analysis model – to identify any risk of harm, requiring every operator to employ, or to exceed it, as an enforceable minimum standard as part of their licence conditions. And they should back this standard, not just with small ad hoc fines, but with the threat of licence terminations and even personal criminal liability.  

CB: What will it take to implement this data-driven approach?

WM: It will take investment, collaboration, and bold leadership – both from the Commission and the industry – but it would deliver significantly enhanced protection to the at-risk, at the same time as allowing those not at-risk – the 96 per cent – to gamble as they wish.  

Industry voices might respond by saying “we are doing this already”, and for a handful of operators this is true, but for many, it is far from the case.

The industry needs:

  • A comprehensive approach in which every operator is applying consistent minimum standards to identify at-risk players.
  • A collaborative approach in which data on at-risk players is shared between operators to achieve a common view of a player’s risk of harm.
  • A more transparent approach in which data on at-risk players is available for real-time third-party inspection.
  • And a much more vocal approach if the advocates of bans and limits are not to win the day.