A new national self-exclusion register to help problem gamblers block themselves from the lure of sports betting is due to be launched any day.

But despite a $40 million price tag there’s no guarantee it will be an effective harm minimisation tool.

And the strongest critic is the de facto national regulator, which argues its existing system of PDF documents combined with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet might be just as, if not more, effective.

The incoming register, dubbed BetStop, was initially recommended in 2015 by former-New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell as part of his federal review into offshore wagering.

In 2021, the Commonwealth government signed a $14 million contract to build the system that it was expected to launch last year.

The system only reached testing phase in recent months, and in January of this year the software provider, Big Village, went into administration.

Industry body Responsible Wagering Australia noted in a submission to the House of Representatives’ current inquiry into online gambling there had been issues with the register’s technical implementation.

Despite these setbacks — and a protracted period of consultation — the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) expects BetStop to launch “as soon as possible”.

“Industry trials have been successful and have demonstrated that the solution can handle in excess of a million requests from wagering providers per minute and respond in fractions of a second,” an ACMA spokesperson told the ABC.

“These figures simulated the type of activity that might be seen at peak gambling periods like the Melbourne Cup.”

How it works

The register will allow people who wish to be excluded from gambling communications to sign up. For example, a person recovering from gambling addiction might register as part of ongoing treatment.

Providers, whatever their home state and territory, will be required to check whether customers’ personal details match any records on BetStop, and bar the person from signing up and betting if they have been found to have self-excluded.

But the Northern Territory Racing Commission, which oversees companies handling $50 billion in betting turnover each year and currently runs its own self-exclusion register, fears some may find holes in the system.

“The majority of complaints made to the commission about the opening of new betting accounts by persons who are self-excluded involve some level of deliberately altered information, such as an altered name, date of birth, address, mobile telephone number or other personal detail,” chair Alastair Shields said in his submission to the House of Representatives inquiry.

“It is the commission’s experience that self-excluded persons who are in the grip of a gambling addiction will go to extraordinary lengths to circumvent a system designed to prevent them from opening an account and using it to gamble.”

The current system used by the Northern Territory and the companies licensed there, such as SportsBet, Bet365, Entain and Betr, is based on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and a collection of PDFs.

The documents are shared with betting companies, and the companies are responsible for ensuring new customers have not previously self-excluded using a manual checking process.

Although the ACMA has implemented algorithms to identify similar records when a company seeks to check a new customer with BetStop, Mr Shields fears it may not be enough.

“If a self-excluded person in the grip of a gambling addiction is able to modify their personal details in such a way that their details are not assessed by BetStop as belonging to a self-excluded person, BetStop will not asses the person as being self-excluded, and the gambling operator will allow them to open a new account and commence gambling,” he said.

The ACMA confirmed to the ABC that the system design had been finalised, but its spokesperson also said they had contemplated tweaks following the launch.

“We will monitor the service when it goes live to determine whether any improvements are required,” they said.

Mr Shields has pledged for the Northern Territory to maintain its own “low-tech” approach until BetStop has been established and is proven to be effective.

Issues, but optimism

Among submissions to the House of Representatives inquiry into online gambling, others have identified potential issues.

Wesley Mission noted BetStop “still has rules making it harder to get on the register than to open an account”.

Addiction treatment and research centre Turning Point suggested the take-up of BetStop relies on its promotion by sports betting companies.

A sign saying 'Gamble Responsibly' on the wall of a sports bar
BetStop is one recommendation flowing from the 2015 review into illegal offshore wagering.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

“When this technology becomes available, its success will hinge upon the requirement for licensed interactive wagering services to prominently advertise BetStop and make it easy for people to sign up with as few taps or clicks as possible,” it said in its submission.

But most contributions referencing BetStop supported the establishment of the new national self-exclusion register.

Monash University Associate Professor Charles Livingstone described it as a “major development in harm minimisation”.

Larger costs, fines

BetStop’s startup and operational costs — estimated to reach $40 million by 2027 — will be met by industry once it launches.

A Responsible Wagering Australia spokesperson said they looked forward to Betstop “becoming operational as soon as possible” and that they were “proud to support its ongoing costs”.

The Northern Territory Racing Commission’s latest decision, which was published on Monday, highlighted how self-exclusion technologies were only as effective as internal company processes. 

A live sports betting site on a mobile phone, April 24, 2020.
Companies will face larger fines under federal legislation compared to Northern Territory laws.(ABC News)

Buddybet was fined $13,770 — a 50 per cent discount on the available fine — as a result of the company contacting 232 people who were self-excluded.

The company had been seeking to update the details of more than 3,000 customers and neglected to check the NT’s self-exclusion register before emailing them.

“The commission considers that contacting self-excluded persons is a serious breach of the Code, notwithstanding that the email was not an invitation to bet, and no accounts were opened or bets placed as a result,” stated the decision.

The fine under BetStop legislation for a similar breach may be as high as $49,500 per email.