Regulating Online Gaming Intermediaries - The Rules and their Implications
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has released the draft Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules to bring online gaming intermediaries within the ambit of the IT Rules, 2021.
Online gaming is one of the fastest-growing industries in India with the number of gamers expected to increase by 30 million from 2022 to 2023. Following the increase in the number of users, it has become imperative that appropriate laws are introduced to regularize the online gaming industry. On January 02, 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) proposed an amendment to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“IT Rules”). The IT Rules, in its current structure, provide regulation for social media intermediaries and significant social media intermediaries. The Draft “Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules” (the “Draft”), which is open for consultation from the public, proposes to extend its ambit to ‘online gaming intermediaries’ forming a part of Part II (that relates to other intermediaries).
The Draft defines “online gaming intermediaries” and “online games” but lacks to provide a clear distinction between “games of chance” and “games of skill”, which has been a sticky issue over the years. The Draft further proposes (inter alia) the following changes –
- All online games would be required to be registered with a ministry-approved self-regulated body by creating a self-regulatory framework, to be registered with MeitY. The self-regulatory body will be responsible for reviewing and registering the online games offered by its members, subject to certain prescribed factors. Games approved by the self-regulatory body may be offered with a visible mark signifying their registration.
- The proposed rules also mention certain compliances that need to be made by the social media firms such as checking the registration of the online gaming intermediary and consulting the self-regulatory officer before allowing any advertisement on their platform.
- The online gaming intermediary shall comply with the requirement of due diligence and shall additionally ensure they do not host any online game that does not conform with Indian laws and shall make additional disclosures to the users including the refund and withdrawal policy, financial risks, and other risks associated with gaming, measures that are in place to ensure the safeguarding of deposits, etc.
- In addition to the above, a new set of due diligence requires compliance with mandatory know-your-customer(KYC) norms for user verification as per Reserve Bank of India norms.
- Similar to the requirement for social media intermediaries, requirements of appointment of a resident ‘compliance officer’ and ‘grievance officer’ have been mandated along with ‘nodal officers’ for round-the-clock coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers.
- The online gaming intermediaries need to have a physical address in India and the same is required to be published on their website.
Purpose of the Draft
The purpose of the Draft, if it becomes the law, is to protect the interests of different stakeholders, ensure the safety of players and encourage responsible gaming. The Draft is also put together to bring about uniformity of laws that online gaming intermediaries may be required to follow by reducing the burden of following state-specific gaming measures making it, not just easier for online gaming intermediaries to comply with the law, but also helps the enforcement agencies since it becomes difficult for the governments of different states to ensure geographical checks are in place. According to the ministry, the final amendments to the IT rules would be notified by April 2023.
Discussions & Implications
While the Draft seems to have been aiming at shaping a burgeoning gaming industry, the concerns around the Draft seem to be supplementing the already existing questions on the existing IT Rules.
At the outset, the question of whether ‘online gaming’ should remain a subject of the ‘States’ (as betting and gambling have traditionally been) or the ‘Centre’, remains unresolved. MeitY had earlier, in affidavits before the High Courts, consistently stated that is not within its purview and power to legislate on the subject and that rests solely on the states. Therefore, the introduction of the Draft without consultation and consensus amongst states seems not quite in line.
The ambiguity further extends to a lack of clarity on whether the Draft bans ‘gambling’. While IT Minister, Rajeev Chandrasekhar stated that “online games that allow wagering on the outcome are effectively a no-go area” there is no clear prohibition on ‘gambling’. The Rules only state, as a part of due diligence, online gaming intermediaries shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that online gaming platforms do not contravene any gambling or betting laws in India, which again differs from state to state.
An online game has been defined in the Draft as a “game that is offered on the Internet and is accessible by a user through a computer resource if he makes a deposit (in cash or in-kind) with the expectation of earning winnings”- In the absence of a definition of “gambling” and “betting” in the Draft and clarity on which category of games are sought to be regulated if the online game for consideration is sought to be regulated on one hand and gambling or betting content is prohibited on the other hand, remains a question. While it may be assumed that the ‘kind’ component in the definition has been introduced to cover ‘non-monetary token’ or ‘online gaming currencies’, it may lead to the consequence where games that do not require any monetary incentive may also be included within the meaning of online games here. The definition can almost broadly cover all ‘gambling games’ within the purview of ‘makes a deposit (in cash or in-kind) with the expectation of earning winnings’. Would that mean that ‘gambling’ is brought within the purview of these Rules?
The Draft classifies online gaming platforms as ‘intermediaries’. Our understanding of the term ‘intermediary’ includes one that acts on behalf of another entity. However, in the case of online gaming platforms, we notice that most of them publish the gaming content themselves and do not host games on behalf of another. In view of the above, in an earlier debate, a government task force submitted a study stating that gaming platforms should be categorized as ‘publishers’ and not as ‘intermediaries’. The question that remains unanswered is why we now bring online platforms within the purview of intermediaries thereby giving them passage to ‘safe harbour protection’ under Section 79 of the IT Act.
Apart from the few above-mentioned points, the Draft may expect push-back from various industry stakeholders on the Government’s over-arching power on issues of revocation of registration of self-regulatory bodies and exercising regulatory power for KYC. It is to be observed therefore how MeitY resolves the already existing issues on the IT Rules pending before the courts and accordingly brings about an amendment to the current online gaming Draft Rules catering to the purpose it mentioned in its notes accompanying the Draft Rules.
Photo by Yan Krukau: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gaming-chairs-and-computers-9072216/
An online game has been defined in the Draft as a “game that is offered on the Internet and is accessible by a user through a computer resource if he makes a deposit (in cash or in-kind) with the expectation of earning winnings”- In the absence of a definition of “gambling” and “betting” in the Draft and clarity on which category of games are sought to be regulated if the online game for consideration is sought to be regulated on one hand and gambling or betting content is prohibited on the other hand, remains a question.