Why Do Politicians Go for Blanket Bans on Online Gaming, and Not Regulation?

The Peculiar Case of the Karnataka Gaming Ban Raises Some Questions

Quite predictably, the blanket ban on online gaming imposed in the state of Karnataka didn’t survive long. The outright prohibition on all online games involving transfers of money including games of skill was struck down as contradictory to the Constitution by the state’s High Court on March 14, less than six months after it came into force on October 5 last year. The foretold failure of the blanket gaming ban to pass court scrutiny does raise some questions, including “Why did that whole thing have to happen?”

Even before the ban came into force, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) warned that the bill is not likely to stand in court because it “appears to have been drafted without considering the various legal and constitutional positions as it includes a wide definition of ‘gaming’ and is against various judgements by the Supreme Court and High Courts.”

One of the mentioned judgements was delivered by the High Court of Madras just two months before the Karnataka gaming ban came into force. Since said ruling struck down as unconstitutional a similar blanket ban on online games involving bets including games of skill contained in the Tamil Nadu Gambling and Police Laws (Amendment) Act of 2021, normal common sense should have suggested that a similar fate had awaited the Karnataka ban.

Do Blanket Bans on Gaming Actually Work?

The purpose for adopting the Karnataka Police (Amendment) Bill of 2021 was clearly stated in its Statement of Objects and Reasons as “to curb the menace of gaming through internet, mobile app.” The actual result of the prohibition was well summarised even before it came into force by Biren Ghose, chairman of the National Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comics (AVGC) sub-committee at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) as follows: “The ban would impact Indian online gaming companies, while consumers would switch to games from other geographies.”

During the five and a half months when the Karnataka ban on gaming stayed in force, a variety of licensed and unlicensed offshore skill gaming, casino, cricket predictions and sportsbook platforms continued their operation in the state’s online space. At the same time, homegrown gaming operators including the likes of Mobile Premier League (MPL) and PayTM First Games had to geo-block access of Karnataka residents to their platforms.

The founders and co-owners of online fantasy sports platform Dream11 were even subjected to a police investigation threatening them with a three-year jail sentence for not blocking their site in Karnataka immediately after the ban was notified.

Maybe the Bans Bring Political Dividends?

Considering how predictable the outcome of the case with the Karnataka gaming ban was, one wonders what the real reasons for state officials to choose to go for it really were. As Felicia Wijkander, Chief Editor of India’s biggest casino comparison site SevenJackpot explains, “Another reason why Bharat states love to throw gambling bans around is that they bring in votes. Especially women’s votes.”

“While Indian men historically have been the “bread-bringer” of the family, they also have the power to bring a family to its peril if their hard-earned money were to go to alcohol or gambling instead of bringing food and shelter to their family. It’s, therefore, low-hanging fruit for governments closing in on election day to state that they’ll “solve” that home-wrecking problem by banning gambling,” Felicia continues.

That may explain it, but one still wonders how strong can such political dividends be if the blanket gaming ban will be so short-lived and people will see that nothing has actually changed. Perhaps politicians hope that voters, and women in particular, will see them as fighters for a cause and will continue supporting them even after the doomed failure of their “efforts”.

Why Not Regulate Online Gaming?

If no other possible solution to address the social costs related to gambling and betting online existed, a blanket ban would have been more understandable. But various examples from around the world show that regulating online gaming is a viable strategy.

As Uday Walia and Surbhi Soni from one of India’s leading law firms Touchstone Partners state, “We believe there is a strong case for India to adopt a modern, robust and consistent legal framework to regulate the gaming and gambling industry, as opposed to the route of banning that the existing Indian regime adopts.”

Would It Work?

Besides raising tax collection multifold and creating many new job opportunities for young Indians, a progressive regulative approach on online gaming would bring down social costs to an acceptable level, Walia and Soni explain.

“If lessons are learnt correctly from foreign jurisdictions such as Sweden, India could make use of technological advances such as the implementation of a biometric identification number (the Aadhaar) for linking consumers with an India specific self-exclusion website – such that users will then be easily excluded from excessively gambling or even being served advertisements related to such gambling activities,” he lawyers write.

What about Political Dividends?

Responsible politicians who succeed in implementing a long-lasting and feasible solution to any issue, including on gaming-related problems, would undoubtedly be able to rely on stable political dividends for themselves, even if in the long-run and not just on the next elections. After all, this is the normal way democracy empowers citizens to select rulers who actually achieve good results for the public.

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