Poland’s legal landscape in relation to online gambling is complex. Currently, the only legal form of online gambling is betting, which may only be carried out by operators licensed in Poland. In fact, since the regulations of online betting are so strict, only seven companies currently hold such licences. These companies are unable to fully compete with foreign operators, who offer their services from abroad, even though they are formally illegal in Poland. Such websites can offer a wider range of services (e.g. casino-style games) that are not just limited to betting like their Polish counterparts, and are not bound by the same level of restrictions or steep tax rates imposed by Polish law.
Participating in illegal gambling (as well as any kind of foreign gambling, online included) is a fiscal offence in Poland. However, the authorities are not effectively imposing this restriction, in large part because tracking and chasing online violations is in practice challenging. A recently proposed amendment to the Polish Gambling Games Act intends on tackling the problem.
The ‘blocking’ mechanism
According to the amendment, the minister in charge of public finance will maintain a list of websites that are used to provide unlicensed gambling services targeted at customers in Poland. Internet service providers which operate in Poland will be required to re-route visitors of such websites to a website maintained by the government, displaying a notice to visitors that such gambling is illegal.
However, there lies a problem in the proposed method used to block these websites. According to the amendment, ISPs will be required to ensure they are “removed from transmission systems […] used to convert internet domain names to IP addresses” and to direct visitors to the government website. ISPs will therefore be required to change the records on so-called Domain Name System servers which they maintain.
What does this mean? Well, when Internet users enter a human-readable website address (i.e. a URL, like “http://mediawrites.law”) into their browser, DNS servers ‘translate’ them, leading the browser to the actual ‘location’ of the website on the Internet (i.e. the IP address, like “18.104.22.168”). Under the new law, ISPs will be forced to configure their DNS servers to direct users to the government website whenever their browsers try to access the blacklisted website URL.
So will this work?
In practice, this method of ‘blocking’ means it will likely be easy to circumvent the new law.
This is because the technique used does nothing to the blacklisted website itself – it will still be available, just a ‘shortcut’ to it will be severed. As such, there will be still numerous ways to access blacklisted websites because:
- Most Internet users may easily change a DNS server they use (i.e. by altering the computer’s network settings). Choosing one based abroad will make the blacklisted services available.
- There are ways to access websites without using DNS servers at all. Often it is enough just to enter the IP address into the browser instead of a URL. Even using a browser is not always necessary – a gambling app may contact the servers directly, so changes in DNS entries won’t affect it.
- More sophisticated methods of Internet access, such as using proxy servers, VPNs, SSH or TOR, will also be unaffected by DNS blocking.
In addition to website blocking, the new law will impose a restriction on Polish payment services providers, which will be forced to cease providing their services to blacklisted gambling operators. In the same vein as with website blocking, it doesn’t seem this will affect foreign payment systems or decentralised solutions such as Bitcoin.
In light of these limitations, it remains to be seen whether the proposed blocking mechanism will be altered before the relevant provisions of the amendment come in to force on 1 April 2017 – the bill amending the Gambling Games Act is currently in the legislative review process.
If however it comes into force as currently drafted, Polish gambling operators may still find themselves unable to fully compete with foreign operators due to the blocking mechanisms loopholes – at the very least to more sophisticated users of online gambling services.
There are also concerns from privacy advocates, arguing that the new law could result in a slippery slope of Internet censorship by the government, paving the way for further ‘blacklists’ in the future. There is no way to guarantee which websites will actually be blacklisted (i.e. if they concern illegal gambling services), and the appeal process, while available, appears to be limited.
Watch this space – we’ll update you as this develops…