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Online Poker Australia LAW: Is Playing Internet Poker Illegal?

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Many of ProfRB's poker-playing readers hail from Australia. Some of them are curious about the legal status of their pastime, and so questions related to online poker Australia law are rather frequent and important to them. We've decided to examine the Australian laws for online poker to provide some guidance as to how the legislative and legal landscape in the country affects internet poker and its practitioners.

Short answer: Australian online poker law does nothing to criminalise playing poker on your computer or mobile devices. Although prohibitory legislation has had an impact on the overall industry and has contributed to a smaller menu of gaming choices for Aussie poker fans, it does not target individual users directly.

Instead, all the punishments stipulated in these laws apply to the corporations running the gambling sites and, in some cases, to the executives of these firms. Penalising regular citizens who enjoy poker is not one of the purposes of these online poker laws. The authorities probably recognise that they would unleash a vocal backlash against themselves if they attempted to persecute behaviour that millions of citizens engage in on a regular basis.

With this being said, let's now take a look at the various anti-gambling statutes that have been passed over the years and see how Australian online poker law affects players, companies, and other entities that have a stake in the game.

Online Poker Laws in Australia

Interactive Gambling Act (2001)

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With the first internet gaming services having only popped up in the late '90s, it understandably took a while for Australian law to catch up. The Interactive Gambling Act of 2001 was the first serious attempt to update gambling laws to take account of this new development. Like many first attempts to accomplish something, it failed to achieve its objectives.

The intent of this legislation was to prohibit unlicensed casino, sportsbook, and poker operators from providing their services to Australian customers over the internet. Because there was no licensing regime for internet casino and poker activities anywhere in the country, these forms of wagering were basically banned at least in theory.

However, loose wording and poor definitions means that clever lawyers retained by leading online gaming sites were able to run circles around the Interactive Gambling Act. The body tasked with investigating violations, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, had to liaise with police forces to proceed with enforcement actions. This need for bureaucratic multi-agency coordination added further delays and uncertainties to the process, meaning that the Act was, for all intents and purposes, toothless.

Offshore Operations Continue Largely Unimpeded

Given the flaws inherent in the Interactive Gambling Act and the difficulty of initiating prosecutions, offshore real money gaming organisations continued their business endeavours largely without interference from the Australian government.

Online poker in particular experienced a boom especially following Melburnian Joe Hachem's victory in the 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event. PokerStars, PartyPoker, 888poker, and all the other big names in the industry were active in Australia throughout this time.

Only One Conviction Occurred

There was only a single criminal conviction recorded under the terms of the Interactive Gambling Act. In the latter half of 2015, Luke Brabin, a noted Australian poker, started running his own online poker site, called Poker Asia Pacific, which accepted Australian customers. He quite understandably believed that no action would be taken against him given the fact that his international competitors were able to ply their trade unimpeded by the law.

Luke BrabinLuke Brabin, Australian Poker Pro and Online Site Founder

Brabin made the mistake of basing his operations on Australian soil, and he was soon prosecuted by the authorities. He pleaded guilty to one count of “intentionally providing an interactive gambling service to customers in Australia,” and in May 2017, Luke Brabin was convicted and had to pay a fine of $10,000.

Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill

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As the ineffectiveness of the Interactive Gambling Act became apparent over more than a decade, demand for stronger anti-online gambling provisions began to grow among legislators. In order to remedy what were perceived as defects in the legislation, the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill (IGAB) was introduced into Parliament in November 2016.

This bill modified the wording of the existing Interactive Gambling Act to strengthen it. Many of the ambiguities in the original Act were cleared up, and investigative powers were handed over to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the successor to the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

ACMA LogoThe ACMA Is The Principal Enforcement Body for Australian Online Poker Laws

Importantly, the ACMA was given the power to proceed with enforcement largely at its own discretion without having to team up with police departments. It can levy civil fines against lawbreakers on its own initiative. Individuals who were found to be violating the law could receive fines of up to $1.35 million per day while corporations could be fined to the tune of up to $6.75 million per day.

Significant Opposition Mounted

Once the potential consequences of the IGAB became clear, a significant lobbying effort began to try to block its passage. The Australian Online Poker Alliance encouraged members to sign a petition against the bill, which more than 2,500 did, and it also directed poker players to submit their stories to a parliamentary inquiry into the participation of Australians in online poker.

Poker found an ally in the shape of Liberal-Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm who was opposed to the legislation. He famously counselled Australian poker players that if the online poker and casino prohibition became law, they should “screw the government, get yourself a VPN for online poker.”

IGAB Becomes Australia Online Poker Law

Despite the efforts of the poker community and Senator Leyonhjelm, the IGAB became the law of the land in August 2017. At around this time, most of the larger internet poker sites decided to stop doing business in the country. The firms that exited Australia included PokerStars, PartyPoker, and 888poker: some of the largest sites in the online poker industry.

Online casinos too were effectively banned by the IGAB, and they began to pull out of the country in droves. Online sports and horse race betting were allowed to continue because there are jurisdictions within Australia that license this kind of wagering, most notably Northern Territory, but unlicensed offshore sportsbooks are targeted the same way internet poker rooms and casinos are.

ACMA Flexes Its Muscles Using Online Poker Australia Law

The ACMA used its new powers to convince the companies that remained to discontinue their services in Australia. The tactics it employs include the use of cease-and-desist letters, threats of legal action, and partnering with other gambling regulators around the world to try to put pressure on these operators.

The ACMA has achieved quite a bit of success in driving online poker rooms out of the country. The Chico Poker Network, Winning Poker Network, and Intertops are a few examples of gaming corporations that at first ignored the IGAB but later changed their tune and elected to stop serving Australian users.

Questions have been raised in some quarters though about the wisdom of the ACMA's strategy. By driving the larger online gaming firms away from the country, the ACMA has created a space for smaller, less-established, and perhaps shadier organisations to pick up the slack. Thus, the government's entire philosophy against real money internet gaming may turn out to be entirely counterproductive.

Telecommunications Act 1997

Computers Blocked

One of the strategies employed by the ACMA is to command internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict access to websites belonging to what it classifies as illegal gambling services. Although the authority for doing this comes from the old 1997 Telecommunications Act, this is actually one of the newest arrows in the ACMA's quiver, having only been employed since November 2019.

The Telecommunications Act 1997 creates an obligation on the part of ISPs to “prevent telecommunications networks and facilities from being used in, or in relation to, the commission of offences against the laws…” The ACMA has therefore used its powers to create a blacklist of prohibited web domains, which ISPs must then block. Australians who attempt to access the blocked content instead see a “Stop Page” explaining why the site is blocked and containing a link to the ACMA website.

ACMA Stop PageStop Page Shown to Those Who Visit Websites on the ACMA's Blacklist

The ACMA began this program of IP blocking modestly with just two domains on its list of proscribed internet gaming sites. However, it has expanded this list significantly in just a couple of years, and it now contains more than 250 sites.

Website Blocking Easily Circumvented

While the ACMA can block various real money gaming-related websites, the owners of these properties often simply move to new web domains. Then there's a delay during which users are able to play like normal until the ACMA catches up with what's going on and adds the new URLs to its list. At that point, the operator can just launch another new web domain and keep repeating this process thereby frustrating the efforts of the ACMA.

Furthermore, savvy computer users have discovered that they can adjust their DNS settings to thwart the ACMA's censorship. By specifying a different set of servers to use instead of their ISPs' defaults, they can proceed directly to the sites they wish to play at without any hindrance from the government.

Communications Legislation Amendment (Online Content Services and Other Measures) Bill 2017

Telephone

One other tack that the ACMA takes to make life tough for online gambling organisations is: promulgating rules restricting advertisements and promotional content. Actually, this applies even to licensed gambling entities, which also have to comply with the edicts of the ACMA in this area.

One of the laws that delegates responsibility for this task to the ACMA is the Communications Legislation Amendment (Online Content Services and Other Measures) Bill of 2017. Among the advertising restrictions policed by the ACMA are rules prohibiting gambling ads between certain hours of the day with fines of up to $300,000 for violations.

Online Poker Australia Tax Law

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You might be wondering how the laws treat online poker in Australia for tax purposes. The good news is that you don't have to pay any taxes on your poker winnings unless you are deemed a “professional gambler.”

The bar for being considered a professional gambler is rather high and tends to require more than just deriving most of your income from the game. It appears that people who maintain business relationships related to gambling or who use their gambling careers as mere springboards to other opportunities are more what the Australian Taxation Office has in mind when it talks about professional gamblers.

For 99.9%+ of players, Australia doesn't impose any tax on poker winnings. After Joe Hachem won the WSOP Main Event in 2005 for US $7.5 million he asked for and obtained a private ruling from the Australian Taxation Office that his winnings were tax-free. Unless your poker dealings are of a larger magnitude than Hachem's, you likely need have no fear of taxes.

Summary of Australian Online Poker Law

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The landscape of online poker Australia law has certainly changed significantly for the worse in the past decade or two. Many offshore gaming companies have been dissuaded from offering their services in the country, fearful of possible criminal prosecution and mammoth fines as a consequence of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016.

This means that you have fewer options as a player, but you can feel totally confident in playing at those sites that do remain available. This is because there's nothing about Australian online poker law that targets individual players. All of the enforcement mechanisms are directed at the people and companies that actually run the sites, not their customers.

You can learn more about the options that remain in The Land Down Under for playing poker over the internet with this page describing the leading Australia-friendly sites in this article about online poker Australia.