An Australian Senate committee has offered lukewarm support for online poker regulation, concluding that on balance it appears to be a low-risk form of gambling with less of a social impact than other verticals, but that more research into the product needed to be done.
The report by the Environment and Communications Reference Committee describes poker as different to other forms of gambling, and argues that regulation would channel players away from black market sites.
However, it adds, this should only occur once the implementation of the National Consumer Protection Framework has been finalised. It also recommends the Department of Social Services be given time to research the relative benefits and harms associated with prohibition and regulation.
The committee estimates that Australia's online poker market is worth AUD$135m, with the game decreasing in popularity over the past five years, largely due to changes in the regulatory environment. This is likely to decrease further after it was specifically banned by the recent amendments to the Interactive Gambling Act.
Despite it being less popular than other forms of gambling, poker "continues to be played by a smaller, but highly engaged community."
This is due in part to the fact that it is seen as a skill-based, or part-chance, part-skill game. The committee noted that customers could play for long periods without significant expenditure and control their spending better than in other forms of online gambling or in venue-based poker games.
It even acknowledged that online poker could play a role in society. The game can help the development of mathematical and poker skills, and provides an important social function for those affected by disability, life in isolated areas or through caring duties. Without online poker, these players could lose an important social outlet.
The committee then added a caveat that there had been "very little research" into poker's actual benefits, and that any such claims should be "approached with caution."
The report had a similarly confused stance towards the claims that online poker was lower-risk than other forms of gambling. While it said that many people that made submissions had experienced no gambling-related harm, this was balanced by evidence showing a number of poker players were at risk or suffering gambling-related harm.
This gambling-related harm, in turn, may be caused by other games, with poker only one of several products played by these sufferers, it added.
While more research is required, the current prohibition was described as being limited by jurisdictional and technological challenges. The support of the government's Productivity Committee for liberalisation (in a 2010 report), and the danger of the ban leading to the expansion of the online market were put forward as evidence for lifting the ban.
This could also increase consumer protection, the report continued. A number of players said that despite the dangers of giving money to unscrupulous operators and a lack of player protection measures, they would continue to access offshore operators using Virtual Private Networks to dodge site-blocking measures.
In the UK, however, licensing requirements for poker had helped significantly reduce access to illegal sites.
Any market liberalisation could also lead to an increase in the size of the Australian poker market, and in turn the number of problem gamblers, the report added. It noted again however the lack of research into the social impact of poker, making it impossible to quantify.
Despite the report's cautious support for poker regulation, Senators Cory Bernardi of the Conservatives and David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party, hailed the report as a clear indication that the game should be legalised.
They said the inquiry heard "heard no evidence suggesting anything other than coincidence between poker and problem gambling". The government "needs to simply get on with implementing the recommendations in the Productivity Committee's 2010 inquiry report into gambling by legalising and regulating online poker", they added.
Bernardi and Leyonhjelm suggested this should be carried out by looking to emulate the UK's regulatory framework.
"In legalising online poker, the government should closely follow the model of the UK Gambling Commission," they said. "Its approach, which involves issuing licences specific to each kind of gambling, enables it to address risks to gamblers, sport and consolidated revenue in a logical and effective manner. It is relevant that the companies seeking to offer legal online gambling services to Australians favour this approach."