Czech Republic: Blocking internet gambling does not constitute censorship
The Gambling Act, approved in April 2016 and regulating internet gambling among other things, is in accordance with the Constitution. This was the decision of the Czech Constitutional Court on 14 February 2017.
According to the Governmental Explanatory Memorandum, this Act tackles the widely recognised negative effects of gambling in society, and therefore aims to stop unauthorised gambling on the internet.
The new Gambling Act came into force at the beginning of this year. Internet providers are now required to block access to certain blacklisted websites. This list of websites enabling unauthorised internet gambling is administered by the Ministry of Finance, which also decides on the registration of these websites. If an internet provider fails to block access to blacklisted websites within the time limit, it is deemed to have committed an administrative offence and can be fined up to CZK 1,000,000 (around €37,000).
An application for annulment of the relevant part of the Gambling Act was brought by a group of 21 senators on 31 August 2016. In their application, they argue that the contested provisions are overly vague and interfere with freedom of expression, the right to information and the right to do business. They also criticise the way the Ministry of Finance makes its decisions to block certain sites. The senators’ main argument was that the legal regulation represents constitutionally unlawful censorship and therefore interferes with freedom of expression and the right to information.
The Constitutional Court argued that unauthorised gambling is an illegal activity which society needs to be protected from in its own interests. Therefore, this activity cannot be defended by constitutional values such as freedom of expression and the right to information. According to the Court, such blocking does not constitute censorship as it merely represents a technical measure preventing illegal activities.
The Court also challenged the fact that the decisions about which websites to block are left to the Ministry of Finance, not a specialised body or a court injunction. The Constitutional Court emphasised here the very rapid dynamics typical of the internet and the evolution of gambling, and thus the need to decide on the registration of each game on the blacklist in the fastest and most flexible way. The Court concluded that the Ministry of Finance represents a suitable administrative authority for this task, and its decisions can also be examined judicially. This adequately safeguards the legal procedure of administrative authorities when implementing the Act.
Finally, the senators criticised the lack of clarity of the legislation. According to the appellant of the constitutional complaint, it is not clear how to interpret the terms “internet provider” and “website”, and objections were also raised as to the confusing method of blocking and publication of the blacklist. The Constitutional Court states in this context that its role is not to replace the relevant public authorities’ actions, and refers to the Governmental Explanatory Memorandum to the Gambling Act, which defines these vague terms. According to the government, only websites which allow access to unauthorised gambling are blocked, not websites which advertise them. Furthermore, according to the government, the obligation to block websites on the Ministry of Finance blacklist has been imposed only on legal entities and entrepreneurs, therefore not including simply natural persons, who can connect via hotspots.
All of the senators’ reservations about the ideological and technical points of the legal regulation were rejected by the Constitutional Court. The challenged provisions of the Gambling Act were declared consistent with the Constitution of the Czech Republic.