23 October 2012

Online gambling is taking off in Belgium

It is only during the last few months that the impact of the Belgian Gambling Act's provisions on online gambling, which entered into force on 1 January 2011, has become visible on the Belgian market.  The Belgian rules allow online gambling, but only under very strict conditions and surveillance.  First of all, a nexus is required with operations in the real world.  Only land-based operators with a proper licence from the Belgian regulator, the Belgian Gaming Commission ("BGC"), can obtain a licence to engage in online gambling.  In addition, the scope of the online licence is limited to the games of chance that the operator is entitled to offer in the real world.  This implies for instance that online casino games can only be offered to the Belgian public by land-based licensed casino operators based within Belgium and that with its online licence, the same operator will be limited to offering casino games in the virtual world.  Licensed online operators are also subject to strict supervision by the BGC, even if a number of rules still need to be finalised.

Under Belgian law, online licences can be granted to the operators of casino games, gaming arcades and betting organisers.  After a test phase, the first online licences have been granted.  At the beginning of October 2012, the status was as follows: there are four online casino licences (A+ licences), twenty-two online gaming arcade licences (B+ licences) and four online betting licences (F1+ licences).  A complete list of licensed operators can be found on BGC's website (click here).

For each of these three categories, quantitative limits apply to land-based licences (a maximum of 9 casinos, 180 gaming arcades and 34 betting organisers is permitted).  As a result of the link between land-based and online licences, the same quantitative limits apply to the online world.  However, the expectation is that the number of online licences will remain substantially lower than the number of licences for land-based operations.  For instance, BGC officials have indicated that they do not expect more than 10 online betting licences.

The BGC has stepped up enforcement against gambling websites targeting the Belgian public without having the required licence.  The most visible step has been the publication of a blacklist of illegal online gambling sites on its website.  This list is updated on a regular basis.  In early October 2012, the list identified 45 websites that are illegal from a Belgian law perspective (operators that target the Belgian market and do not have a proper Belgian online licence).  The list is designed to increase transparency in the market and makes it possible for ISPs to intervene.  Officials from the BGC have stressed that the list is dynamic, and that sites can be removed from the blacklist when it is demonstrated that they no longer target the Belgian market.  This initiative by BGC has raised protests from a number of operators and also resulted in litigation.  However, so far, the courts have upheld BGC's initiative.

In the next few months, the BGC and the government should finalise a set of rules that specifically apply to online gambling activities.  These rules have been defined on the basis of the experience gained from the first online licences and include, for instance, a series of detailed technical and IT specifications.  An ethical code is equally in the pipeline.  The expectation is that these rules will be adopted in the coming months.