Dumb Laws : One Step Beyond
So you have issues with internet censorship in places like Singapore, China or Saudi Arabia. You see the odd case of authoritarian behaviour that's observed in our "civilised" society and protest. And sometimes the news generated by clueless people in charge of technology sounds like fiction. Here's another one.
This story is true and it doesn't come from some theocratic regime in the Middle East, or some African dictatorship with an X.25 link to the world and a 286 in the presidential palace, but from the very, umm, "progressive" European Union and specifically from Greece. As the resident expert on this country, I'll take it upon myself to explain the situation whose story is now, in the summer of 2002, making the rounds. If you read it on E2, it has to be true!
Greece, as you may but probably don't know, is a rather liberal country in many aspects. Law enforcement is often informal and forgiving, and legislation highly protective of citizens' rights. They do sometimes slip up because lawmakers are politicians and experts on virtually nothing (least of all modern technology). This is, in all the years I've lived in or been following events in this country, by far the most stupid thing ever to come out of parliament. And, trust me, I've seen little bad intent but plenty of dumb laws. Law 3037/2002, regulating games, is an absolute gem of piss-poor and ignorant legislation that exposes the country to world-wide ridicule. I thought the Royal Navy's 2000 Ig Nobel prize was a winner but this has taken government stupidity to new heights.
Law 3037 is based on an old insistence to regulate gambling. Practically every sort of gambling outside casinos has always been illegal. Casinos themselves are strictly regulated and taxed. Yup, I said taxed, like everywhere else. That's a lot of income for the government and illegal gambling is taking a cut out of it. All gambling-related social issues stem from illegal gambling. Proof of income is required in order to enter a casino and they're obliged to throw you out before making you a pauper.
Of course social gambling is widespread and, particularly around the time of the New Year, a national obsession and tradition. The cops are unlikely to raid your New Year's Eve party--most of them are, in fact, socially gambling half a month's wages at a card table with friends "for luck." I don't think anyone has been prosecuted for hosting an informal card game at home since the days of the junta in the early 1970s, no matter how illegal the game itself. They wouldn't even know where to begin raiding. Football pools, lotteries and scratch games are all perfectly legal and more often than not government-operated. The government's concern has always been with illegal operations that are unregulated, provide no safeguards, and avoid taxation. For a long time, this meant middle and upper-class private "clubs" in which fortunes were made and lost, and which offered an outlet for compulsive gamblers bent on being left destitute.
In the mid-1980s, arcades began sprouting as an offshoot of billiard halls and similar establishments. Not much later, enterprising arcade owners started rigging their cabinets to offer "alternative" games. Select, trusted customers would get their little poker and slot-machine games with a flip of the switch... and put their credits in the operator's pocket, tax-free. Business boomed for many years. I used to frequent places like that and knew that I was small fry as a customer, no matter how many coins I left in the machines. The guy who parked his ambulance outside and spent half his shift playing video poker on a machine invisible from the entrance, he was business, as the king-sized coffee tin that sat behind the counter, stuffed with banknotes, bore witness to. Very recently some of these shady operations switched to PCs and began to masquerade as internet cafes. Incidentally, the minimum age for even setting foot in a pool or arcade hall is 17 and, at least in larger cities, they will card you.
Now, the Greek police force, while making some progress away from its good old boy stereotype, is decidedly low-tech. Few arrests have been made for computer crime, high-tech swindling and the likes. The force is, for the most part, not trained to deal with technology, and the small department that deals with computer crime is hopelessly understaffed. They do not have the resources to tackle this illegal gambling issue. As for internet gambling, they face a problem similar to the one that France and Germany face with their legal obstacles to National Socialist items, texts and memorabilia: how the hell do you keep your citizens away from them on the net without having a massive civil rights issue? They don't even know where to start looking.
So some panicky genius came up with the idea to ban any sort of game that has to be plugged in, and then some. The bill passed on 2002-07-17 with strong bipartisan support, and became law upon its publication in the government gazette on 2002-07-30.
Law 3037's cardinal, and most fatal, flaw is gross generalisation and a complete failure to classify games according to their social, commercial, educational or interactive character. Games are classified ONLY according to the mechanical properties of their use, effectively banning anything that isn't 100% manual. It also provides for a fine of 1000 euros for first-time offences, and up to a year in jail and a 150000 euro fine for repeat offenders. If you translate the letter of the law from legalese into plain Greek (or English, or Swahili), here's what you get:
- Every arcade in the country can either close or, umm, remove its source of income, pinball machines included. Goodbye, Tommy.
- Computer games and game consoles. Did Santa bring you an XBox? Report him to the cops before they come to get you.
- Your chess computer is now outlawed. Practice against human opponents, but don't you dare practice playing against an AI. Your personal Deep
Blue will be confiscated, whether it can beat Kasparov or not.
- The face of bowling is changed to a more traditional one. Go set your pins yourself. The electronically controlled mechanism that used to
do it for you is in jail.
- Did the US government have a problem making Microsoft un-bundle software? Problem solved! Either you de-integrate Minesweeper from the operating
system or you're breaking the law.
- In fact, virtually every computer operating system, as typically distributed, is off-limits. Oh well, back to the abacus. Or NetBSD (as mkb points out, not even that).
- Forget that electronic darts board. Keep score with pen and paper. Make sure your pen does not have a clock on it. No calculators. If you
can't subtract 177 from 325, tough.
- Your gameboy. Big no-no.
- Contact your mobile phone vendor to find out how to get rid of that illegal copy of Run for Money.
- All government computers running a Microsoft operating system will have to be shut down until they can get rid of nasty things like FreeCell and, uh, NIBBLES.EXE.
Actually, it's best said what's still permitted:
- Chess. Competition chess is legally a sport and you can probably sneak your evil, mechanical chess clocks past the cops as sporting
- Backgammon and tavli (remind me to node that). Bets are off.
- Board games in general. Lucky you, you can still play Monopoly and checkers. But I'm afraid your little cousin's Speak & Spell will have to
- Billiards. However, you may not agree that the loser picks up the tab. That's illegal betting.
- Several card games that weren't on the banned list before.
- Ball games. I think we can pass electronic scoreboards off as sporting equipment too. How fortunate for the Olympics.
- Umm, hopscotch. Cops and robbers. Hide and seek. Err, yeah. No x-ray specs.
A greater impact has been made on internet cafes, which face a logistical nightmare of policing their users and paying ridiculous licencing fees. Under this law, a casual game of Hearts on Yahoo! is out of the question. LAN parties are impossible and at least one arrest has been made for hosting a Counter-Strike game. Planned activities, social or of the money-making kind, have been cancelled.
So, what happens now?
As has happened in the past, the executive and the judiciary will probably pick up the legislative mess. This is a good time to be thankful for the existence of a modern republic and the separation of the estates, and for the fact that Greeks aren't exactly sticklers for rules unless you're going through customs or trying to get money from the government.
Amidst the hue and outcry, the European Court of Justice has been mentioned. While it would probably rule against the law were it to come before it, I find it more likely that a Greek higher court will very soon find an excuse to strike down the law, slow as the wheels do turn in the judicial system's paper-based bureaucratic mess.
Officals have stated that they do not plan to target software vendors such as Microsoft, or to take any action against home gamers. Chances are they'll let it slide if they find you playing chess over the net in a public place but you never know when some zealous, clueless rookie cop will take a dislike to you. Gaming equipment, such as consoles and shrink-wrapped commercial computer games, is not on law enforcement agencies' hitlist either (yet). Tourists are being reassured that their kids' toys will not be confiscated at the airport.
It's really not in the Greeks' character to take away toys from their kids but the gaming population, which is made up mostly of under-18s, can't expect much support from parents (until they have to ask "you arrested my son for what?"). Computer literacy, and even understanding of the subject, among the adult population is presently too low for it to make any serious impact on public opinion. Still, with mainstream politics already quite disreputable among the younger generation, I expect both major parties to pay for this faux pas when today's 16-year-olds are required to vote two years from now.
Nobody's saying that there exists no problem that needs addressing but this piece of legislative rubbish amounts to burning down the house because you found a few bed bugs. The fact that you don't know how to use bug spray is not an excuse.
2002-09-11: The update to this story, surprisingly enough, came pretty soon. The Thessaloniki case that was brought to trial ended in the acquittal of all defendants. While the prosecutor manoeuvred to avoid a decision on the law itself and recommended acquittal based on the idea that the two internet cafe operators were not in a position to control the actions of all their customers, the bench went all the way and held the law to be in violation of the individual freedom clause of Article 5 of the Constitution.
It's quite unusual for a lower criminal court to take such a strong position. The government chose a path of confrontation and the court's decision was appealed by the prosecutors. A second court case brought ten days later in Serres was also dismissed and more cases are pending in other parts of the country. On September 24th, it was made known that the government (the Finance Ministry under whose jurisdiction this falls) had issued guidelines to the police basically telling them to lay off recreational games and look for gambling (which, of course, can be pretty subjective when your average cop on the street can't tell a gambling web site from his rear end).
Initially, the law was slightly amended to prohibit games involving "any monetary transaction." Presumably paying to play is included in that prohibition. In December 2003 an executive order was issued clarifying the law's scope. This clarification failed to exempt the use of games and disk encryption software in internet cafes. Occasional police raids were still reported.
In October 2004, the European Commission filed suit against Greece, on the grounds that the law infringes upon the free movement of goods and services between member states and is disproportionate and overreaching.
As of July 2005, Law 3037/2002 remained on the books.