NEWS

Ban on electronic games sparks fierce opposition in Greece and abroad

July 30, 2002 has gone down in history for Greek Internet users as the day online electronic games were banned. That was when Law 3037, which restricts illegal electronic gaming, also put a blanket ban on all electronic games. Online chess and Pacman suffered the same fate as one-armed bandits. A law intended to clamp down on illegal activity managed to threaten the completely legitimate industry of recreational and educational electronic games, sparking opposition the lawmakers had not bargained for. In its first court test, the law was judged unconstitutional by a court on September 10. The next step may well be that Greece gets hauled before the European Court. Last spring, the media published claims that illegal electronic gaming had brought financial ruin to hundreds of families. Outlets with gaming machines had sprung up everywhere in Greece – in cafes, establishments that used to have pinball machines, and in public places everywhere. The publicity showed that more measures were needed, and led to the creation of a new law. But the new law was flawed, mainly because it banned all forms of games. In fact, shortly before the bill was passed, a special parliamentary committee that drafts legislation wrote a report pointing out specific problems arising from imprecision in the wording of the bill: «In view of the nature, objective and universality of the ban, there may be questions as to the extent to which the regulations being instituted are fully in harmony with constitutional protection of the free development of the personality (Article 5, Para. 1 of the Constitution).» The committee went on to express its reservations about the universality of the ban on electronic games and to what extent it would help achieve the intended goal (of clamping down on gaming), and about whether it contravenes the Constitution and European law. Despite the committee’s observations, the law was passed unchanged on July 17 and published in the Government Gazette on July 30. Problems in connection with implementing the law began with the arrests not only of gaming machine owners but also Internet cafe owners, whose customers were simply playing recreational games like chess or backgammon online. Last week a Thessaloniki court tried two Internet cafe owners and one employee, charged with breaking Law 3037. The defendants were unanimously acquitted. «In its present form the law levels everything. An owner of gaming machines and a child playing with a Game Boy can’t be treated the same,» explains defense counsel Nikos Arvanitakis. «It must become clear that electronic games are an integral part of the Internet. At the moment we are caught on the horns of a dilemma,» Althanasios Zachariadis, president of the union of Internet cafe owners, told Kathimerini. «One on hand we have the Greek law, which irrationally bans all electronic games, hitting at a large section of the business world, and on the other are some opportunists who exploit the name ‘Internet cafe’ so as to cover up illegal activities. The State declares it is unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, as [Deputy Economy Minister Apostolos] Fotiadis boldly stated. But is that our fault?» The Internet cafe owners are going to appeal to the Council of State and then to the European Court. Among those directly affected are the importers of electronic games for public places (the technological descendants of the immensely popular Pacman and Tetris). One such company is JVH Ellas, which imported Photo Play consoles and touch screens for games of knowledge and observation (such as Trivial Pursuit). «Once the the decision was announced, we had to withdraw 7,000 machines from the market. What’s more, sales stopped and we have lost a billion drachmas (2.9 million euros),» the company’s managing director, Nikos Serdaris, told Kathimerini. «We visited Fotiadis repeatedly, to no avail. Everyone at the Economy Ministry told us: ‘You’re right that you’ve been treated unfairly, but it’s a political decision.’ So we had no alternative but to complain to the European Commission and get ready to sue for damages.» The next casualties of the law are companies that import recreational computer games and consoles for home use. «The law contains a major contradiction. You can’t permit the import and sale of electronic games and then forbid their use,» Ioanna Yiannaki told Kathimerini. Yiannaki is sales manager of Infogames, a company that recently filed suit against the State. «The financial damage will be great in many sectors,» she comments. Kathimerini spoke to the largest importers of electronic games, including Sony, Nortec (Intendo) and Microsoft, which do not believe they are affected by the law and are awaiting further developments. The latest move comes from Brussels. On Friday, the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) described the overall ban as illegal and threatened to appeal to the European Commission to overturn the law. «We are particularly concerned about the effect of this law on Greek and European industry, ISFE Secretary-General Patrice Chazerand told Kathimerini: «The federation believes that the law is inadequate and disproportionate. Moreover, it is not in line with the European legislation.» Since the State is not intending to abolish all kinds of electronic games, but only electronic gaming, why doesn’t it amend the law? The official answer is that the State doesn’t have enough staff to sort the sheep from the goats. The deputy minister has repeatedly stated that the matter is definitively closed and that the interpretation of the law is up to the police. Kathimerini tried unsuccessfully to speak to the deputy minister to ask him if the law is to be amended following the recent decision. Watch out: you could get arrested! warn foreign media The issue has been taken up, and exaggerated at times, by some of the foreign media. Major networks like the BBC, CNN and Cnet have run lengthy reports, even going so far as to warn travelers that they might be arrested in Greece if they have any electronic games in their possession. The main issue the news stories have focused on is the absence of any equivalent legislation in the European Union or other Western countries. «Use a Game Boy in Greece and you’ll end up in jail,» said a report on the technological news network Cnet. The report warned that thousands of tourists in Greece ran the risk of heavy fines or long prison terms for possessing mobile telephones or video games. Cnet quoted an official at the Greek Embassy in London saying: «Since you know they’ve been banned, don’t take them with you.» The BBC has given the story comprehensive coverage, while taking a milder line. It reported the acquittal of the Internet cafe owners, while commenting that the law has come under heavy criticism because it makes no distinction between electronic gaming and electronic games. It also noted that the law has been described as unconstitutional.