Internet search giant Google has been fined 500,000 rubles ($7,500) by Russian government authority Roskomnadzor for failing to block prohibited websites, including gambling domains, from its search results. Google has agreed to pay the fine without appealing, and it is now implementing the filtering technology needed to prevent Russian users from accessing these sites going forward.
The case against Google was opened in November 2018, and the corporation acceded to the demands of Roskomnadzor in mid-January. On Feb. 7, it was reported that Google had begun to censor the banned websites.
According to a 2012 Supreme Court decision in the Russian Federation, internet service providers have a duty to block offshore gambling websites. The blacklisted domains are contained in a centrally maintained database, known as the Unified Register of Prohibited Domains (also called FGIS), to which ISPs and search engines connect.
Over time, the Russian authorities have been busy adding more URLs to the list. They've even begun to target payment processors that handle betting-related transactions. While exact figures are hard to come by, we've seen estimates that the number of gambling-related websites proscribed in 2018 exceeded 14,000 – and officials are busy continuously adding to this total.
This dwarfs similar attempts in other jurisdictions to deny citizens access to web content deemed potentially harmful. For example, in September 2018, Colombia expanded its blacklist of gaming operators significantly; yet the URLs identified by Coljuegos (the Colombian gambling watchdog) amounted to fewer than 2,000. Albania's recent attempt to restrict internet wagering meanwhile identified only 343 sites to be blocked.
Part of the reason for Russia's high total of proscribed sites is that the catalog kept by Roskomnadzor includes many subdomains and alternate spellings of the primary domains. Among the firms whose web presences are blockaded are: The Stars Group, Americas Cardroom, 5Dimes, Betfair, 888, Unibet, and William Hill.
When one looks at the recent confrontation between Google and the Russian government, it is easy for gaming aficionados to suppose that these measures are aimed at them personally, but is this really true? While Russia maintains a tight grip on physical gaming by restricting it to a small number of resort communities, its interest in shutting down online gaming operations is more of a question of collateral damage to online enterprises than it is of hitting the target squarely.
To put it another way, the feud between an imperious Google and a control-freak Russian state is not about gambling at all, but about exerting control over ALL internet activities inside Russia. The same types of articles being written about Russia shutting down internet gambling previously available through Google are undoubtedly being penned in many other single-interest communities as well.
The online sex industry is screaming loud and long on this same topic. Nor is the moaning restricted to what some of the puritanically minded might refer to as online purveyors of vice. Russia is displaying the same level of hostility to foreign religions as it is to foreign porn and poker. In short, Google is being required to comply with Russian State demands that it block a wide array of websites that the government does not wish its citizens to have access to.
It is not a question of whether a site is honest or not but merely whether Russia wants those views available to its subjects. This is about putting a capstone on a Russian Great Firewall of the Internet and not about keeping the average Ivan and Katerina away from the video slots. Now that Google has capitulated and agreed to submit to proactive censorship of its search results insofar as people inside Russia are concerned, the Russian government has gained a complete mastery of what its citizens are and are not permitted to see online.
While the restrictions are currently a website-based list, this will soon result in a basic alteration of the function of an ISP or an individual website owner. Since they can now be banned for producing or disseminating content unwelcome to the authorities in Moscow, they have been turned into an arm of the State. At no cost to the government, they will now be zealously policing themselves, their associates, and their visitors in order to remain acceptable in the eyes of the censors.
Many online gamblers, including poker enthusiasts, have already availed themselves of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to get around the increasing number of nationally imposed restrictions on their activities. Yet the day is rapidly approaching when this workaround is not going to, well, work.
Even if VPNs do continue to provide some anonymity and ability to contact restricted websites abroad, their use is becoming effectively criminalized in nations that require very precise internet credentials and, as is now the case in Russia, only permit viewing of certain approved websites. Online gamers are thus being put in the position of branding themselves as enemies of the state merely because they wish to amuse themselves in a manner that the authorities find objectionable.
Put simply, those parts of the planet where VPNs are most desperately needed are also the ones that are cracking down on their usage most harshly. This movement is still in its infancy, but the trend is very clear to see. Human life is being effectively re-feudalized wherein all activities not specifically approved by the overlords are forbidden. The great libertarian promise that the Internet seemed to offer to all mankind is slowly eroding away.
Even those tech-savvy users who can successfully evade the ever-tightening restrictions on VPNs may find themselves shut out from their preferred online gaming pastimes. Roskomnadzor has revealed that it's in the process of developing a new way of hindering the spread of undesirable internet content.
This system will employ something called “deep packet inspection.” We're not sure exactly what this refers to, but odds are that it will be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than the current domain-blocking efforts.
Right now, anyone who is able to install a poker client on their computer can play without hindrance. However, if the authorities implement the scanning and blocking of network packets coming into and leaving the Russian telecommunications system, this situation may not hold true for very long.
It's clear that the impact of these measures extend well beyond throttling international gaming sites. There are many disparate communities that have built up an internet-based lifestyle. Little by little, each and every one of them is coming under assault. To be honest, some degree of adult supervision was bound to re-appear after years of wide open, and sometimes abusive, online behavior. What is happening, however, is not a question of oversight but of an increasingly blanket prohibition.
Every month seems to bring a new report of prohibitions from a different land. For instance, in January, the U.S. Department of Justice reversed its earlier opinion on the Wire Act. According to the new interpretation, this legislation prohibits ALL forms of interstate online wagering, not just sports betting. A few months prior in October 2018, Australia's Communications and Media Authority congratulated itself on its victories in combating illicit gray-market gambling.
Nowhere is there any sign of new freedoms being implemented. Instead, it is all about taking away choices and restricting people to only those venues that the government approves of. Even this would not be so bad were it not for an ever-growing impulse to make gambling a species of rich man's privilege that is forbidden to the ordinary citizen.
If you have plenty of money, your business is welcome at countless exotic resorts worldwide, no matter what the ordinary customs of the country may be. If you do not have these advantages in life, you are being gradually moved into a shadowy netherworld where your participation in such an aristocratic privilege as gambling is subject to severe penalties.
Workers of the world, unite! (against governments that want to deny your rights of free association).
Though there have been crackdowns against international online gaming concerns in many other areas around the world, few governments have gone to the extreme lengths that Russia's has. Indeed, there are many internet poker, casino, and sports betting options for most players around the world.
If you live in the United States and would like info on the best online poker sites, be sure to check out our guide to USA internet poker. For casino gaming, head over to our list of recommended USA-friendly virtual casinos. You can also bet on sports with one of our best sportsbooks for USA bettors.