SCMP Sunday, October 8, 2000


Raising the stakes

New laws are rarely made in anticipation of the changes in society that will eventually make them necessary. Instead, law adaptation takes place slowly, after due consideration. Nevertheless, faced with indisputable evidence that current laws are being widely abused, and that there is little the authorities can do about this abuse, a change in the law must happen. And so it is with gambling.
The Internet has changed the face of gambling. And, while Hong Kong law still forbids soccer gambling, there is little doubt that preventing it taking place is impossible. Police are, of course, able to raid illegal gambling operations within the territory, but their jurisdiction does not extend to Internet sites overseas. These sites can operate freely and Hong Kong punters are able to place bets almost without concern.
A government review of gambling law is currently under way, and full public consultation is promised before any change in the law is proposed. This is a sensible approach; and no doubt there will be many voices raised against any changes that increase the scope of legal betting in Hong Kong. Such concerns must, of course, be carefully considered. But, while the negative effects of gambling need to be heeded and assessed, the best approach is for the authorities not to try to defeat the industry's expansion, but to have a greater role in its management. This is the only rational route because millions of dollars are already being wagered on soccer games, albeit illegally. And it is simply wrong that vast amounts of potential tax revenue is being sent overseas, via the Internet.
So long as the demand exists it will be met by either illegal operators in the SAR or by owners of Internet sites overseas. Doing nothing in order to preserve the status quo is not an option.
The Government has declared itself committed to the new economy; that commitment requires upholding the free flow of information and commerce, which the Internet represents. Attempting to block overseas Internet sites, therefore, even if it was technically possible, is a non-starter.
The authorities must increase the opportunities to bet legally while tackling the unwanted side-effects gambling can generate. The gambling will go on anyway; it is only by bringing it into a legal environment that the authorities can have any chance of managing it properly.