A Bill seeking to amend the Gambling Ordinance was introduced into Legco last week. According to a spokesman for the Home Affairs Bureau the amendments envisaged by the Gambling (Amendment) Bill are targeted at reducing the activities and services of offshore bookmakers in Hong Kong.

The amendments proposed by the Bill include provisions which make it clear that "bookmaking" and "betting with a bookmaker" amount to criminal offences, even if part of the transaction takes places outside Hong Kong. Other proposals set out in the Bill are the creation of new offences of "promoting or facilitating bookmaking" and of broadcasting tips and odds on unauthorised horse or dog racing events within a 12 hour period before the start of such events.

Much of the publicity surrounding the publication of the Bill has concentrated on the effect that its proposals would have on races organised by the Macau Jockey Club which are broadcast in Hong Kong by ATV World twice a week. In this regard, the Home Affairs Bureau has described the approach of the Bill as being "narrow and focused".

However, in reality, the Bill appears likely to have only a limited impact on the Macau Jockey Club's activities with the main effect of the Bill's proposals coming from its other provisions including, in particular, the new offence of "facilitating" bookmaking. This offence potentially has extremely wide implications, particularly in the context of internet gambling.

In the event that a punter in Hong Kong places a bet with an internet gambling site hosted overseas the host of the site would commit an offence (bookmaking), as would the punter (betting with a bookmaker). Any possible argument that such activities in relation to an overseas web-site do not constitute an offence under the Gambling Ordinance would be removed by the amendments proposed by the Bill. However, the impact of the Bill does not stop there, as an ISP which is responsible for maintaining the punter's internet connexion would appear to "facilitate" the transaction (albeit unwittingly) and, as such, the ISP could face prosecution.

The penalty proposed by the Bill for facilitating bookmaking is a maximum of HK$5 million and 7 years' imprisonment. With a penalty of this size hanging over them, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see ISPs restricting their customers from accessing known gambling web-sites. Of course, this wouldn't prevent the determined Hong Kong punter from finding a more obscure gambling web-site on which to place a bet, however, it could take Hong Kong out of the market for established gambling web-sites.

First published in SCMP Technology Post on 5 December 2000.