In an effort to control the unabated and unwarranted negative impact of online gaming activities on users, especially children and other vulnerable sections of society the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) has introduced various checks and balances through relevant amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 notified on April 6, 2023.
The rules provide adequate controls to protect those who play these games from illegal gambling and betting websites and apps. The new rules have been notified as despite the existing legal landscape, various social and economic concerns have emerged from this industry over the past few years.
The concerns include user harm in the nature of addiction-related concerns among children and adults, especially in terms of financial losses incurred by adult users due to such addiction, content-related concerns in terms of depiction of violent or inappropriate content, with absence of concrete measures to prevent children from accessing such content or real money games, ads of offshore gambling and betting websites targeting Indian users and lack of safeguards to secure users’ money and money laundering-related concerns in the absence of any strict KYC mechanism.
Incidentally, betting and gambling activities are banned under various State laws, while few games of skill have been held to be constitutionally valid by the Supreme Court in various judgements.
Online gaming industry in India has seen immense growth in the recent past. The new rules cast an obligation on intermediaries, including social media platforms and app stores, to make reasonable efforts to not host, publish or share any online game that causes user harm or which has not been verified as a permissible online game by an online gaming self-regulatory body (SRB) designated by the Central Government.
The rules even disallow intermediaries to host or display any advertisement or surrogate advertisement or promotion of an online game that is not a permissible online game. This will help to address the growing menace of online ads of illegal betting and gambling operations targeting Indian users.
The rules will ensure that online games or sites that involve wagering will be banned completely including advertising or any time of presence.
For this, the rules introduce the concept of ‘permissible online game’. These rules will ultimately allow only such online real money games in India that are verified by SRBs as not involving wagering on any outcome, being compliant with the obligations under these rules, the age under law at which an individual is competent to enter into a contract, and the framework made by the SRB.
Additionally, in case of any other non-real money online game that has the potential to cause user harm or affect the security of India, the Central Government has the power to require such online games to be subject to the obligations under the rules as are applicable to online real money games. Thus, this empowers the Government to control any non-real money online game that could have a harmful impact on people.
The rules address addiction-related concerns among children and adults through safeguards such as warning messages, monetary spending limit and time limit. To be verified as a permissible online real money game, an SRB will ensure that any online game is tested against the framework published by the SRB on its website.
This framework will mandatorily include measures to ensure that such online real money game is not against the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States and public order, safeguards against user harm including self-harm and psychological harm, measures to safeguard children through parental controls and age-rating mechanism, and measures to safeguard users against the risk of gaming addiction, financial loss and fraud through measures such as repeated warning messages at higher frequency in long gaming session and provision to enable a user to exclude himself upon user-defined limits being reached for time or money spent.
Thus, the SRB’s framework will ensure that only such online games that have implemented the above safeguards are allowed to operate. This will also protect children and vulnerable sections of the society from the negative effects of online games.
The rules will enhance public awareness about trusted online games that have been subject to a mandatory verification process. Users can identify permissible online games through a demonstrable and visible mark of verification to be displayed mandatorily for all online games verified by SRBs.
The rules ensure transparency and full accountability of online gaming intermediaries enabling access to online real money games through mandatory KYC, discouraging providing credit financing options to users, conformity with requisite framework of SRB and other monetary protection measures.
The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist, who has reported and written on a wide range of subjects in an extensive career.