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Fifty-Fifty: Where Do You Draw The Line These Days?

The fond belief is that it has all nothing to do with me. What have I to do with booze advertising or online gambling?

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Sometimes I am not really sure where to draw the line between being a columnist and being an activist. The moment you follow-up with some rigour on any one subject, and write more than one piece in quick succession on it, and ask a few uneasy questions or ask for action to be taken, motives start to be imputed and the label of ‘activist’ follows in no time. Not that it worries me: I have no commercial interests in anything these days, I have no favours to seek from anyone and I really see no reason not to use the power of my pen to do good to society wherever I can. But the antagonism and venom with which you tend to get attacked does scare you at times, and you are forced to wonder whether you set out to be a writer or a crusader. 

I was at loggerheads with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) for over three years on the issue of surrogate advertising by liquor brands and finally got them to take some action after much skirmishing. A lot of ‘friends’ from the ‘industry’ called me at various points of time trying to dissuade me from pursuing the issue of surrogates. I had nothing to gain, they said. But it is against the law, I protested. There are so many other things being done against the law. Are you here to change the world?  

Thankfully, I am not the only one possessed by this perhaps unreal desire to stand up against whatever seems blatantly wrong. Vishal Gondal, the tech entrepreneur, who was once the pioneer of the gaming industry in India, has of late been raising the issue of unbridled advertising by rummy sites and the lure of real-money gaming that can tempt below-maturity youngsters to gambling. Well he has been summoned by the Haryana Police to a Faridabad police station to investigate his social media posts against rummy! 

Trouble started brewing for Gondal after he wrote an article in Medianama in January 2021 titled -- In The End, The House Always Wins: The State Of Real Money Gaming In India.

In the article, Gondal stated that online gambling platforms advertise themselves as a source of ‘reliable income’, rather than as a source of entertainment. "This misrepresentation has not just caused loss of income and economic hardship to lakhs of customers, it has even led to suicide in some cases. People are not signing up to these platforms for the joy of gaming, but rather a chance at making a quick buck. When their luck runs out, who will be holding the buck?", Gondal asked. "Many online gambling sites prominently feature games that favor the house. Furthermore, most online gambling makes use of a computer science concept known as random number generators (RNGs). These RNGs are well-known as being prone to rigging if not audited effectively. It is critical to note that even if opponents seem human, there is no way to verify that they are not bots," Gondal added.

Legal notices started pouring in. 11 at the last count. 2 notices each from Bihar, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab; 1 each from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka. The Delhi party has in fact demanded Rs 25 lakh in compensation for harassment, depression and loss of reputation besides Rs 22,000 for covering the cost of the legal notice. So Vishal Gondal is these days closeted with lawyers, figuring out how to respond to the avalanche of hate coming his way, while all he was doing was just some well-meaning cautionary warnings against gambling online. 

Vishal Gondal had earlier approached ASCI on the same issue. In his plaint he had highlighted that fantasy leagues, real money games and e-sports companies have of late started carrying a disclaimer at the end of their TV commercials. The disclaimer, Gondal felt, that is being shown in such ads is at the end of the ad -- similar to Mutual Fund and anti-tobacco campaigns. In sensitive ads like these where there is a risk of financial loss and/or addiction, the disclaimer must be shown right from the beginning of the ad, avers Gondal. It's a well known fact that most people don't see the full ads on digital platforms like YouTube and are likely to skip this important disclaimer. Missing this disclaimer can mislead the consumer into thinking that real money games are just like other games available on the internet. 

I am not getting into the whole issue of the legitimacy of real money gaming. The Online Rummy Federation (TORF) itself has been running full page newspaper ads promoting an online rummy credit card that allows you ‘to set limits’ on yourself and ‘play responsibly’. The only question I ask is if everything is so kosher, and clean, then why does anyone have ‘to set limits’? Limits on winning? No, of course not. Limits on losing. And that is the key. Why should it take a Vishal Gondal to point out to government agencies or to ASCI or to newspaper owners who allow such ads to be run, or to broadcasters, that real money gaming can be addictive for under-age kids and to even mature adults and that the subject needs serious attention, and governance.

I admire Vishal Gondal. We need more of his ilk. Who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe is right. Too many of us are convinced in our minds that we should let sleeping dogs lie. We are all far too wrapped up in our own lives, our own families, our own little cocooned worlds, with no time for what is happening around us. The fond belief is that it has all nothing to do with me. What have I to do with booze advertising or online gambling? My only answer to that is what poet John Donne wrote,

“No man is an island,
 Entire of itself.

 For I am involved in mankind.
 Therefore, send not to know
 For whom the bell tolls,
 It tolls for thee.”

Dr. Sandeep Goyal is former President of Rediffusion, ex-Group CEO of Zee Telefilms and was also the Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He now heads Mogae Media.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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