Dutch Gaming Authority clamps down on offshore operators: William Hill fined EUR 300,000

Europe

For the second time in recent months the Dutch Gaming Authority (DGA) has imposed a fine on an offshore online betting operator. The DGA fined WHG (International) Limited, also known as William Hill, EUR 300,000 for offering online gambling without a licence to Dutch players, via the website www.williamhill.com.

The DGA fined CyberRock and Honeydrew last month EUR 350,000 for similar infringements, while Malta-based companies Betsson and MRG (parent company of Mr Green) were recently fined EUR 300,000 and EUR 312,500 for providing unlicensed gambling services. Online betting operators are currently prohibited from providing services to the Dutch market, as the new Remote Gambling Act is not expected to come into force before 2020 and no licences are currently being granted to online operators. In the interim, the DGA has been taking enforcement action against operators that fall within the scope of the so-called 'prioritisation' criteria. Up until 1 June 2017, these criteria prescribed that the DGA would focus on games of chance on websites with a .nl domain, gaming websites in the Dutch language and/or gambling sites that advertise through Dutch media. From 1 June 2017, the DGA has also focused on websites that specifically target the Netherlands (e.g. by offering payment methods that are popular among Dutch consumers (such as iDeal) or that fail to employ technology capable of blocking certain Dutch IP addresses).

In its investigation into William Hill, the DGA established that it had offered casino games such as roulette, blackjack, poker and bingo as well as sports betting between 12 February 2018 and 29 May 2018. According to the DGA, William Hill was undeniably targeting the Netherlands: the website was accessible via a Dutch IP address, permitted users to pay via iDeal, "the Netherlands" could be chosen in a dropdown menu informing players how to reach customer services and the number for such customer services was a Dutch telephone number.

In response, William Hill acknowledged that it allowed Dutch players to bet on its website through permitting them access and allowing iDeal payments but contested that it actively targeted the Dutch market. William Hill stated that it was only coincidentally available to Dutch players (e.g. not having a website in Dutch, not using a .nl domain and not actively promoting iDeal functionality) and thus did not specifically target the Dutch market. According to William Hill, the DGA had created a precedent through its statements and enforcement action in recent years that such a passive approach would not lead to sanctions. William Hill, among others, referred to a public statement by the director of the DGA at a gaming conference in 2017. During this conference, the Director was asked whether it permissible for operators to use .com domains that are passively available to Dutch players. According to William Hill, the Director answered that this is 'very acceptable'. William Hill argued that it could not be sanctioned for breaches of gambling regulations as a result.

The DGA nevertheless rejected William Hill's arguments and emphasised that it had never unequivocally stated that no enforcement action would be taken against operators that only make their website passively available to Dutch players. The DGA argued that it had always been transparent about the fact that operators that fall outside the scope of the prioritisation criteria may still force enforcement action if they violate Dutch gambling regulations. In addition, the DGA sent several letters to William Hill to warn them about the enforcement policy of the DGA, and William Hill's illegal use of the williamhill.com website. William Hill therefore could – or at least should – have been aware that it was potentially liable to enforcement action. The statements of the Director of the DGA did not change this position, especially in light of the statements at the conference that unlicensed operators are prohibited from taking bets from Dutch players.

The arguments of William Hill were therefore not accepted by the DGA, which fined William Hill EUR 300,000. In determining the fine, the DGA took into account the seriousness of the breach, the number and kind of games offered, the amount of prizes that could be won, the bonuses available and the deposit limit. 

William Hill has already announced that it is appealing the decision of the DGA. It is questionable whether an appeal will lead to a different conclusion, as it is not in dispute that William Hill breaches Dutch gambling regulations and Dutch courts have until now consistently ruled that the enforcement policy of the DGA is reasonable and acceptable. For offshore operators that allow Dutch players to bet on their platforms, this decision should serve as another warning. Notwithstanding the fact that William Hill also offered iDeal functionality and had references to the Netherlands on its website, the fact that operators do not use geoblocking (or a similar measure) to prevent Dutch players from betting on their websites would in principle be sufficient to face enforcement action by the DGA.