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Gamblers need more control of their data, not less

Credit: calado / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill mustn’t remove existing protections for the public before they’ve even been deployed.

Since the Gambling Act 2005, which reduced restrictions on gambling and its marketing, I have campaigned for changes to limit the harms caused by gambling. In the intervening years, ever more gambling is online. Similarly, a growing percentage of the gambling industry’s £1.5 billion marketing budget is spent online, not least on direct, online marketing to individual customers.

This rapid growth in online gambling has led to the creation of vast troves of personal information gathered and used by gambling companies to exploit vulnerable people. Research has shown that gambling companies obsessively monitor their customers, profiling their gambling behaviour.

Those profiles are used to calculate the profit available if self-excluded gamblers are ‘won back’ into gambling, to understand what messaging best “influences” customers, and to target as many people as possible with personalised, special offers and emails at their most susceptible moments.

Unless amended, the DPDI Bill is likely to significantly aggravate data-driven harms in the gambling sector

And it works. The Gambling Commission claims that gambling advertising causes some people to gamble more, some people to start gambling and some who had stopped to start again.

Data is the key. The scale and substance of that data has led to national and international media coverage. In a BBC documentary with Paul Merson, Football, Gambling and Me, Mr Merson is shown an example of the typical information held on a gambler, including whether the gambler was “positively” or “negatively” influenced by certain forms of advertising. Mr Merson’s reaction was visceral shock, calling such practices as “scary”, “upsetting” and “bordering on evil”. 

Last summer’s Gambling White Paper acknowledges there is a problem saying, “Some aggressive advertising practices can exacerbate harms”.  Some action is being taken. The Gambling Commission is cracking down on marketing targeted at “people showing significant indicators of harm”.

And the Gambling Commission is also reviewing “the design and targeting of incentives such as free bets and bonuses”. So, there may be further action in due course.

This is all welcome. But I believe we should also be looking at those vast troves of personal data, which is used as the basis for this onslaught of direct marketing.

Our current data law – the UK GDPR – limits the ways data can be used. The use of limited and necessary data for the ring-fenced purpose of safer gambling or affordability checks would be compliant.

There is however evidence to suggest that the gambling industry is using customers’ personal data to profile individuals and persuade them to increase the amount they gamble, in a manner that is not compliant with current data laws. So, if properly enforced– and regulatory investigations by the regulator of data, the ICO, into the use of data by gambling industry are underway – the current data protection regulations can be used to limit the most damaging uses of individual data by gambling companies.

As a result, if customers knew more about their data rights under UK GDPR (better still if those rights were strengthened) there is a route to challenging gambling companies and tackling the problem without waiting for possible future action by the Gambling Commission.

Unfortunately, however, that may no longer be possible because of planned changes to the current data law in the Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill currently before the Lords. 

In the name of ‘cutting red tape’, the Bill threatens to disempower those most in need of control over how their personal data is used. For instance, the Bill introduces a range of permissible uses of data that remove any consideration of the impact on individuals, thereby fast-tracking the potential for abuse.

The Bill also introduces procedural hurdles that would make enforcement of rights, even in egregious cases, more difficult, lengthy and time consuming. One study suggests it would take at least 20 months for a complaint to be determined by the regulator. These changes would give companies much greater freedom to ignore their customers’ interests and make it more arduous and expensive for individuals to enforce their rights.

So, unless amended, the DPDI Bill is likely to significantly aggravate data-driven harms in the gambling sector.

While it has not, so far, been fully exploited, the current law – which distinguishes between responsible and irresponsible uses of data - provides a real opportunity to limit the harm done by irresponsible gambling companies. But, in its current form, the DPDI Bill would be be a significant backward step in the efforts to reduce gambling harm.

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