Gambling in the Online Age
Gambling in the Online Age
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While gambling facilities must have a provincial license to operate, only government-operated websites offer legal gambling online.

You have probably seen ads for online gambling websites all over the place – commercials, social media, even at the Superbowl. But did you know these websites are not always legal for Canadians to use, even if they’re advertised to you?

Online gambling does not just mean digital slot machines or virtual blackjack. Although these are common, it can also include betting sites or lotteries, among others. These different types of gambling are mostly managed by provincial governments. For example, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC) oversees gambling in Alberta. If you visit a large casino in your area, there’s usually no doubt about whether it’s operating legally. But how does that work when you’re gambling online?

Is it legal?

Gambling is only legal in Canada if the institution hosting the gambling has a licence. Each province has its own regulatory body that issues and oversees licences in that province. In Alberta, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis Commission oversees gambling. It does so under the authority of the Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis Act

It is tricky to guarantee whether a venue is licenced if you’re playing online. Websites may not be clear on their country of origin or may not show proof of licencing. Sometimes, they may not take proper steps to make sure minors are not using their services. Many websites rely on an honour system for a user to mark their age when they sign up. Some websites do take more steps to verify a user’s identity. But even an adult user may be uncomfortable giving their personal information to a site they are not sure is legal.

British Columbia was the first province to create its own official online gambling website, PlayNow. The British Columbia Lottery Corporation designed and owns PlayNow. They’ve also made PlayNow available in other provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Those provinces have adopted it as their own official gambling website rather than start from scratch. Alberta’s official online gambling venue is PlayAlberta, which is the only regulated website in our province.

It is legal only for provincial governments to have online gambling websites in Canada. In other words, other organizations cannot get licences to offer gaming online. However, it is very popular for Canadians to use unregulated websites from other countries. The law is not clear on how Canada can crack down on or prosecute offshore gaming sites for trying to conduct business in Canada.

Gambling as Entertainment

Online gambling isn’t just an attraction for people to play. It’s become popular to watch on streaming platforms like Twitch and sometimes in video games through loot boxes.

Twitch is a platform often used to stream people playing videogames, but you can use it to stream anything. There is usually a live chat box for viewers to comment and the streamer to respond if they choose. It’s not illegal to stream yourself gambling on Twitch, and neither is it illegal for minors to watch. But Twitch does hold some reservations in its terms of service. For example, Twitch doesn’t let streamers give to viewers links or referrals to gambling websites. But this does not wholly address concerns about gambling on the platform. Videogames or commentary are the most popular streaming categories. But there are over a million users following gambling categories like slots. This can be mere entertainment, but streaming is particularly popular with younger audiences, who may not be as cautious or aware of the financial risks involved. There have been cases of unregulated gambling websites paying streamers to use their website while live to advertise it. In October 2022, Twitch banned the streaming of unlicensed gambling. This followed backlash against streamers who allegedly frauded others to fund gambling addictions. However, concerns about gambling on Twitch had been circulating since before these events.

In some countries, like the United States, loot boxes in videogames are being scrutinized. A loot box is an item you can buy or find in a videogame with surprise “loot” inside. This can be items or outfits, some of which give big advantages for the player. Currently, they are still legal in the United States. But loot box contents are randomised, can provide advantages over other players, and you can pay for them with real world money. This has raised concerns about whether games with this feature should be regulated like other gambling. Players can access these videogames on consoles like XBox, PlayStation, or Nintendo Switch. But many players just use home computers or laptops to take part.

The Bottom Line

So, how do you know if the gambling website you’re using is regulated or legal? Here are a few tips:

  • Looking around the website to see if it has a licence number can help make you feel more secure.
  • See if you can find a governmental affiliation listed on the gaming website.
  • If you want to gamble online when travelling in another province, check the government website of that province for more information on gambling there.

Always remember that big wins are unlikely! For some types of gambling, like cards, there is some skill involved that can tip the balance. Even so, there will always be a “house advantage.” That means the casino or the gambling website will keep the odds in their favour. And if you enjoy watching streamers gamble, keep in mind that the gambling website they are using may have given them money to spend. It’s rare to win big, even if some of them make it seem achievable.

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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.

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