Cyprus: Mixed Signals Over Future of Online Gambling

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By Elias Hazou, Cyprus Mail

LAWMAKERS discussing a draft bill to regulate online betting were left flummoxed yesterday after hearing that the administration, understood to want to ban gambling, might not want an outright prohibition after all - maybe.

DISY MP Ionas Nicolaou, who chairs the House Legal Affairs Committee, spoke of a "cock-up" in government policy.

Both he and Ricos Erotocritou, head of the Institutions Committee, said they did not know what to make of the mixed signals coming from government officials regarding the issue.

The deputies were confounded because recently the Justice Minister, in an interview with a local newspaper, apparently pulled off a U-turn when he said explicitly that he was in favour of legalising online casinos.

This was in stark contrast to the hard-line views of the Chief of Police, who advocates criminalising online gambling, while President Christofias has repeatedly vowed that no licensed casino - virtual or not - will be allowed to operate under his watch.

What got to the deputies the most yesterday was being informed - by accident - that the ministers of Finance, Justice and the Attorney-general were at the same time having their own private meeting, apparently to discuss government policy on gambling - which suggested the administration was having second thoughts at this late hour.

What's more, the MPs only found out about yesterday's top-level meeting of the ministers from representatives of the ministries who were attending the joint-committee session and who had to call their respective bosses for clarifications.

"I hope we don't reach the end of the draft process and suddenly find that policy has changed radically," DISY's Nicolaou told newsmen later.

"Were gambling to be legalised, that would be a complete reversal in philosophy," he added.

For three months now, the two committees have been working on a draft bill - initiated by the Finance Ministry - on online betting and gambling. They are currently holding closed discussions with the Finance Ministry, the Attorney-general's office, the Justice Ministry and the police to flesh out the final draft that will be submitted to the Cabinet, before being sent to the European Commission for approval. It will then be sent back to parliament to be passed into law.

At present, online gambling in Cyprus comes under the general Betting Law, amended in 2007 to comply with EU legislation for the free provision of services. Finally, lawmakers had settled on the concept to allow the state to regulate online gambling by excluding it from this list of services - in line with recent changes in EU law, which in practice allows members states to ban online gambling.

The bill aims to prevent access to online casinos by imposing filters on internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to gambling sites, and then refusing to issue licences to ISPs to provide online casino services. Another provision being considered is to force ISPs to install filters to prevent the use of credit cards for online casinos. Other forms of online gambling such as live betting on horse races or sporting tournaments will be allowed.

During yesterday's discussion at the House, deputies were told that the Attorney-general's office has decided to strike from the bill a clause that would make it mandatory for online gamers to disclose their bank account details to a proposed gaming authority. Instead, such disclosures would be made to the police and only in the context of a criminal investigation.

The Central Bank meanwhile, addressing concerns over the risks of money laundering through online gaming sites, said users of credits cards that are tied to bank accounts without limit should be blocked from playing online.

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