This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that Torstar, the Toronto Star’s parent company, plans to introduce an online casino subject to online gaming’s legalization. As discussed in “Is it time to rethink gaming laws in Canada?” (The Lawyer’s Daily, July 16, 2020), online gaming and single-event sports betting reform in Ontario are long overdue and in line with other countries’ changing policies. Despite the many benefits that may result from online gaming’s legalization, there should be caution in regulating its rollout and decisions regarding which organizations should be trusted to provide it.
Online gaming in Ontario, if regulated pragmatically, can provide both social and economic benefits to the province. In addition to increased employment, there are many opportunities for inclusive and sustainable economic growth. It may also reduce or remove many of the negative externalities that currently result from unregulated offshore gaming companies targeting Ontario’s residents. A critical aspect for providing responsible online gaming is creating a framework for determining who should be licensed to offer it. Torstar’s intention to create an online casino highlights this issue.
Slowing down gold rush mentality
As it currently stands, different levels of government have introduced legislative proposals to allow for the legalization of online gaming. However, little has been done thus far by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), the relevant regulator for gaming in the province, in communicating how the management and conduct of privately operated online gaming platforms will be regulated. This has resulted in many businesses proactively planning to offer online gaming, despite many of them having little to no previous connection to, or experience with, online gaming.
The AGCO was faced with a similar issue to this one in previous years with licensing cannabis retailers. After cannabis’ legalization, the AGCO was responsible for creating the licensing system that determined who could operate a retail store selling the substance. Faced with an influx of hopeful cannabis store operators, the AGCO introduced a now-scrapped lottery system. The novel system had its faults, but it successfully weeded out prospective retailers that were not ready to meet the existing regulatory obligations.
Due to the known dangers of private online gaming, extra scrutiny should be employed when creating a licensing system for its providers. It will be necessary to reduce the potential risk to Ontarians, including their mental health being affected or developing an addiction from using an online gaming provider that is not meeting its licensing obligations. Having a national news organization provide online gaming further complicates the matter.
Should news and gambling mix?
As the owner of one of Canada’s largest online news platforms, Torstar’s announcement brings up several important issues. The first is whether a trusted media organization with national coverage should be allowed to leverage its distribution network to promote its online casino to the public.
Before the recent push to legalize single-event sports betting and online gaming, Canadian media companies and journalists played a pivotal role in preventing predatory offshore gaming companies from advertising to Canadians. By informing the public about its dangers and acting as an essential gatekeeper to the public’s attention, media companies have protected Canadians from various bad actors and have earned their trust.
As a trusted source of news and information, it is unclear whether it would be desirable for Torstar to leverage this goodwill to promote an online casino. Because of the fact that its news platform reaches so many households nationwide, there is the concern that many Canadians who may not otherwise have sought out online gaming may be introduced to it.
As well, having a trusted news platform promote an online casino may lead many Ontarians to misjudge the risks of using its online casino. Torstar’s financial interest in the proposed online casino also poses the risk of affecting the integrity of the news coverage and analysis it provides on online gaming legalization.
Free and independent media is crucial because it allows journalists to hold governments accountable for their actions and decisions. As a trusted news organization that the public relies upon, Torstar’s decision risks stripping it of this status.
According to the government of Canada, it “strongly believes that media freedom remains an important part of democratic societies” and that “people need free media to provide them with accurate information and informed analysis to hold governments to account.” This position was substantiated when the government of Canada in 2019 introduced roughly $600 million in government support to qualifying journalism and news organizations.
Torstar’s vested interest in online gaming’s regulatory approval and success puts into question Torstar’s ability to provide accurate information to the public. It also affects the company’s ability to hold the government accountable in an unbiased manner when reporting on issues relating to online gaming.
Any coverage or analysis of online gaming reform covered by Torstar’s journalists may have to be questioned, considering they have a vested interest in both online gaming’s legalization and economic viability. This consideration would apply to any other journalistic or news outlet considering introducing online gaming offerings in addition to their news reporting.
Torstar’s entrance into the nascent Ontario online gaming industry presents many interesting issues and highlights the importance of the work required to effect a thoughtful rollout. It isn’t out of the question that introducing an online casino may be beneficial and reasonable for Torstar to pursue, even as an independent media company. However, it is a novel occurrence for a national news provider to operate an online gaming service. Torstar’s plans bring up a range of not yet fully understood issues and should be evaluated for the public’s benefit.
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