Greek government backs down on gaming

Summary:Following intense criticism, the Greek government issues a clarification of the law that bans electronic games, saying that police should restrict arrests to gambling-related offences

The Greek government has backed down over its ban on computer games, which technically made it illegal to play or own any type of electronic game -- even those on mobile phones.

Following widespread coverage and criticism of the new law, the government has issued guidelines to police making it clear that only games related to gambling are covered by the law.

"The installation and use of games in homes and residential areas is allowed if there is no financial benefit involved," the government said. "The same applies to public and private areas...if again there is no financial gain for the player or any third party."

"It is clarified, finally, that there is no problem with any citizen, or tourist visiting Greece, using or owning electronic or other games such as PlayStation, Game Boy, Xbox, etc."

The law had threatened to criminalise ordinary people and tourists, and the Greek gaming and Internet cafe communities have been up in arms since the legislation was passed at the end of July. One gaming tournament in Greece was cancelled because the organisers were worried that they could face arrest.

The Greek Internet Cafe Union has been a vocal critic. "The whole matter could remain in the sphere of comedy if it didn't concern directly the employment of thousands of people and form the ideal ground for ironical remarks and talk against the country," said the Union. "In China they prohibit the access to political sites, in some other countries prevent the connection to sites of sexual content and in Greece the use of personal computers and game consoles for playing games is illegal."

Several employees of Greek Internet cafes were arrested under the law in August, but later released when the court hearing their cases, in Thessaloniki, declared the law unconstitutional. Each had faced up to three months' imprisonment with a fine of at least 5,000 euros (£3,130).

However, the three were rearrested again after a few days when the Court of Appeal reversed the ruling by the court of first authority. More arrests followed, with some estimates putting the total number near 50 to date.

The law, which was hurriedly introduced to combat illicit gambling, has been facing other legal challenges too.

The Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE), a lobbying body based in Brussels, believes the law is not compatible with European Union law. On 13 September the ISFE sent a letter to the Greek prime minister, Kostas Simitis, and to the president of the Greek Parliament, Apostolos Kaklamanis, based on what it says is independent legal analysis.

In its letter, the ISFE said the law is "illegal" because it conflicts with the treaty of the EU (articles 23 and 28 on freedom of movement of the goods, article 43 on the freedom of establishment and articles 49 and 50 on the freedom of provision of services).

"This text is disproportionate compared to the goal which it pursues," said Patrice Chazerand, secretary general of the ISFE.

In Greece, the lawyers worry in addition about a provision in the law that makes it illegal to play an electronic game even in private. This part of the law renders illegal the Solitaire game provided with Windows, they say. "It is a precaution to stop encouragement of the creation of illegal private clubs at home," said Tassos Parthenis, an Athens-based lawyer specialising in new technologies.

In an effort to gain more publicity within Greece for the issue, the Greece Internet Cafe Union briefly set up a Web site named after Dimitris Koufontinas, the alleged head of extreme left-wing Greek terrorist organisation November 17. The reason, said the Union, was that efforts to track down members of November 17 had dominated the mainstream press there. The site, www.koufontinas.gr, no longer appears to be live, but when it was, it directed people to the Union's official site at www.netcafe.gr.


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