Italy Government Investigating Possible Google Violation of Country’s Gambling Ad Ban

  • 2018 “Dignity Decree” banned all online gambling ads except for state-run lottery
  • Search results on Google’s Italy-localized site produced gambling advertisements
  • Most AgCOM investigations have related to bonus offers on gambling sites
  • Gaming operators excoriated the government when the ban was enacted
Keyboard with a key colored like the Italian flag and a key that says "bet"
Italy’s advertising and communications regulatory agency is investigating Google for a possible violation of the country’s blanket online gambling ban. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Only state lottery allowed to advertise

Italy’s advertising and communications authority is digging into Google’s activities to see if the internet giant has been violating the country’s gambling advertising rules. The Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni (AgCOM) is investigating three Google companies: Google Inc., Google Italy, and Google Ireland Limited.

part of the “Dignity Decree,” published in the summer of 2018

The gambling ad ban was part of the “Dignity Decree,” published in the summer of 2018. It made all advertising that promoted gambling and betting that offered cash winnings, including related sponsorships, illegal. Fines for violating the Decree start at €50,000. The rules took effect on January 1, 2019.

There were two exceptions to the ban. Delayed draw, or “non-instant,” state-run lotteries are still permitted to promote themselves. The other exception was temporary: any advertising contracts that had already been signed could still be honored, but for no longer than a year from the approval of the Decree. Thus, that exception has already expired.

Are ads and search results different?

AgCOM’s investigation was taken up after Google search results in Italy produced ads from foreign gambling sites. The regulator is going to be looking at whether or not the Dignity Decree covers gambling ads that are the result of an internet search. These are effectively ads born out of happenstance, not specifically placed on a page intentionally. AgCOM wants to figure out if these, too, are illegal.

Those in the know expected AgCOM to drop the case not long after it arose, so the continued investigation comes as a bit of a surprise. Since the Dignity Decree went into effect, the cases AgCOM has investigated have tended to revolve around online gambling bonus offers.

Specifically, the bonus offers were made on the gambling sites themselves, something that many people would initially think is fine. AgCOM, however, considers that advertising, as well, primarily because they include a “call to action.” In adjudicating one case in July, the regulator said a site’s bonus offer consisted of “verbal attractive claims…explicit invitations to join the offer and graphics typical of promotional communication.”

Operators livid

The Dignity Decree and subsequent gambling ad ban has been lambasted by online gambling operators. Shortly after it was published, months before it officially took effect, licensed Italian operators started falling in local Google search results. At the same time, foreign sites, not licensed in the country, were rising to the top.

Cristiano Blanco of the Kindred Group said the Decree was “delivering the [online game] to unauthorized operators,” adding that the ban was akin to “putting the dust under the carpet.”

our companies grow if everyone plays one euro, not if a few sell the house to play.”

Massimilano Casella, the CEO of Microgame, said that his company was focused on being a responsible corporate citizen, that feeding on problem gamblers is not only immoral, but bad business practice. He explained that in “our industry, our companies grow if everyone plays one euro, not if a few sell the house to play.”

He lashed out at the government, saying he wanted to work “side by side” with it to fight problem gambling, but that the government was “blind and deaf” in this situation.

LeoVegas, an operator licensed in Italy, commented that the law didn’t even make logical sense. Since the government legalized online gambling, it must think it is a perfectly reasonable pastime for the country’s citizens, that it must not be some scourge on society. That doesn’t jive, LeoVegas opined, with an ad ban which harms legal, licensed businesses.