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Ask HN: Is working on online casinos unethical?
43 points by bjourne on Dec 5, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments
I think I think (yes..) that it is. Because you are creating technology that almost certainly is making the world worse. The amount of joy people get from gambling for fun is outweighed by the amount of grief gambling addiction causes. And even if it isn't, most online casinos are designed in such a way to attract addicts. I'm not very sure of my opinion, so I'd like to hear what everyone else thinks!

Edit: Ops. Should have mentioned that in my part of the world, online gambling is not illegal.

Tl;dr - Yes.

The first source of money for online casinos is not the money that the poor addict pours into it, it is the huge money laundering operations that are done in the back. Online casinos are not based in places that you will imagine particular transparent in terms of tax policy. They are based in Malta (russian money), Gibraltar (UK money) or in places like the Caiman Islands, Panama... A journalist was murdered in Malta for just speaking about this.

You're assuming that money laundering is unethical.

Is there an argument in favor of it (money laundering) being ethical? The most I can think of is anonymity for the general public, but is this an actual use case?

Let's suppose it's 1775 and the American rebels want to fund an arguably-just fight against the ruling British.

Or let's suppose you run a VPN in China that allows the Chinese to arguably-justifiably access Western websites, and you need to launder your funds.

Or perhaps you're a spy inside ISIS and need to hide the fact that you're getting funded by the US.

Or perhaps you're in Iran and want to leave, but since Iran doesn't permit you to bring any money out of the country, you (arguably ethically and justifiably) decide to get it out via Bitcoins.

Being able to launder money is arguably very similar to being able to maintain privacy, which means it falls under Martin Fowler's excellent argument for privacy: https://www.martinfowler.com/articles/bothersome-privacy.htm...

I have never argued for money laundering in my life, but guys... you have to stop seeing everything in black-and-white.

So, general anonymity, as I mentioned above. My (admittedly only implied) question around this usecase is: is it a real usecase, or purely theoretical?

Well, I did donate BTC to a cause in Africa (forget the country) that was at odds with the government which was taking a steep cut of any incoming money

I'd say financial anonymity should be considered a basic human right. If you have no privacy to your purchases, you have no privacy at all.

My rule of thumb: will your customers regret their purchase in hindsight? If you suspect most of them will, then yes, it's unethical to collect their money now.

Elsewhere in this thread people have compared casinos to video games, tobacco, and facebook. Video games run a full spectrum from predatory to wholesome, so you'd have to look at that on a case-by-case basis. I regret some, but definitely not most of the games I've bought/played. I'm not a smoker, but I think most smokers would prefer to not need to smoke. Looking at it another way, I don't think any smokers would prefer that their children start smoking, so in my view tobacco is unethical. Facebook has both saved and ruined lives so it's in a grey zone for me.

By this test, casinos/lotteries/etc. land firmly in the far unethical side of the spectrum for me personally, but you might have a different view based on your own experiences. Ideally someone would find hard data to support one view or another.

I used to work for one and was not proud of it because I felt our products did not provide any value.

My boss had this theory how betting small amounts of money is just another form of entertainment people enjoy, just like going to the cinema or playing a video game, and thus we were in the entertainment business. I didn't really buy it and I wondered if he truly believed it himself.

Not everyone has a chance to work on world-changing, truly innovative stuff, but there's a lot of productive, useful work to be done, and I just think that online betting is not one of them.

Except something like 90% of revenue comes from 5% of "players" so it's obviously just what he told himself to placate his conscience that he wasn't ripping off addicts.

How is this different from Apps on the playstore ? Insurance/Banking/consultancy ? Or, I have to say, sometimes I wonder how the amounts people spend on music truly vary. The merchandising for most bands means that if you really want to spend millions on a band, you can (e.g. the "pharma bro" Wu-Tang clan saga). Bands themselves say that this is where most of their income comes from ...

This whale principle certainly seems to cover quite a bit of the economy.

Even movies are similar. You want to spend a million (or a few) on star wars ? Not a problem. [1]

From a psychological standpoint I would strongly suggest that you never make it your mission to save people from themselves. There's only 2 ways you come out of that experience: evil (lost belief in mankind, and therefore anything goes), or mad.

[1] http://mentalfloss.com/article/53388/6-most-expensive-pieces...

The question is about ethics. How is it relevant whether other people are taking advantage of addicts as well?

I'm just saying that, to varying extents, large portions of the economy are "taking advantage of" addicts. Certainly if you work for FANG, they all (including Amazon) have their addicts. As do things like reddit, in fact probably most sites.

You cannot let your life be controlled by "ethics" like this. It's not reasonable.

> My boss had this theory how betting small amounts of money is just another form of entertainment people enjoy, just like going to the cinema or playing a video game, and thus we were in the entertainment business.

For some that's true. I know people who like to responsible gamble from time to time. It's entertainment for them.

I know friends that work in online gambling, they say they are more ashamed of people who work in banking, hft, defense (offense?) contractors, Facebook or Google. Why? Because all the above have tangible negative effects on society.

We need an engineering code of conduct - too many tech folk happy to take a dollar in return for building stuff that makes the world a worse place.

A code of conduct is meaningless if the profession does not rely on certifications. For example, lawyers can be disbarred and doctors can lose their medical license... What are you going to do to an engineer who acts unethically?

> Because all the above have tangible negative effects on society.

Your friends are kidding themselves. What can be more tangible than taking money from people? I am not taking sides on the "is allowing gambling unethical" question, just saying that the "tangible effects" argument is weak.

Sounds like whataboutism. Pointing at the dirty neighbors does not clean your own house.

So you are confirming the neighbour does indeed have a dirty house too?

No, I am pointing out it doesn’t matter.

> We need an engineering code of conduct.

Most engineering disciplines have this, and they take it very, very seriously. That's part of being a PE.

The problem is enforcing breaches of the code. In engineering disciplines that require licenses from the relevant government or professional bodies, breaching the ethical codes can result in you, or whoever signed for your work, losing their license and thus being unable to work (or at the very least they'd have to work under another engineer). In addition to facing potential legal and financial consequences for their actions.

But we don't have mandatory licensing in software and I honestly struggle with how we would even implement that. In a traditional engineering discipline such as civil engineering, teams of engineers work on a project that requires millions of dollars to construct, with many reviews by other engineers and overseen by more people.

But all it takes to make software is a computer. The barrier to entry is so much lower that, if you're a bad actor, it's not that difficult to find someone who will be willing to do your dirty work for money. Even in places that license software engineers (I don't think a PE exam existed for software until 2012, but I may be mistaken) there's really no incentive to get one because companies by and large don't care (there are a few that might, though, like aviation or medical).

The best idea I've been able to come up with is a combination of education on ethical issues and a voluntary code of ethics that we get as many software engineers, developers, and companies to sign onto. It doesn't solve the problem, but it's at least an incremental improvement over the Wild West that we currently have.

>We need an engineering code of conduct - too many tech folk happy to take a dollar in return for building stuff that makes the world a worse place

Too bad that it is a very subjective idea. What your friends who work in online gambling think has a negative effect on society (and thus could be said to make the world a worse place) does not seem that way to me. I see HFT as market makers and bankers as something necessary to keep capital flowing. Of course, there are still industries that I feel cross the line when it comes to ethics as well, but I'm sure there are many who disagree with my opinion as well.

> Because all the above have tangible negative effects on society.

Let's see your evidence for this. Otherwise, bullshit.

> We need an engineering code of conduct

No. What we need is a no-bullshit code of conduct- All actions should be based on evidence, instead of belief. Engineering included. That would solve this, and many many many other problems occurring now.

> We need an engineering code of conduct

That exists [1]. The problem is, as gk1 points out, it doesn't have much teeth without licensure.

[1]: https://www.computer.org/web/education/code-of-ethics

Disclaimer: I am a recreational poker player, and have interacted with all sorts of rec players from serious semi-pros to weekend tourist players to total degenerate gamblers. The answer to this question will inevitably be personal and will vary based on your own personal ethics.

As someone who has quit a job partially over an ethical objection to the product subject matter (it was a surveillance system), I would have no problem at all taking a job at an online casino.

In terms of societal value, I don't see much of a difference between a gambling site and an online stock brokerage or financial trading firm. They're both zero-sum games, where the host takes a cut of the profit. Both can equally lead people to financial ruin, and can be equally addictive. So if you'd work for E-trade or even a hedge fund, why wouldn't you work for PokerStars?

In terms of legality, OP has already specified that it's legal in his/her region, so there should be no moral objection there.

In terms of providing end user value, at least they are providing entertainment value. There are plenty of worse tech jobs where you simply exploit end users and others reap most of the actual product value.

Other commenters have covered the Video Game / tobacco / Facebook angles so I won't go there.

OP, if you managed to find a job offer at one of these gaming companies (you didn't mention that), then congratulations. My understanding is that online gaming industry is quite like the video game industry, where it's tougher than average for an "outsider" to break into the industry.

Is working for McDonalds unethical? Well yes, because people get obese and live shorter lives.

Is working for Tobacco companies unethical? Well yes, because people die from cancer which was caused from smoking for example.

Is working for the bank unethical? Well yes, because most banks make people buy bonds that have a high profit for the banks but lower for the customers.

Is working for your local grocery store unethical? Well yes, because you are again making people fat by placing candy at the exit so you profit more.

Everything is unethical to some extent, just decided what level you want to be on and be happy.

Hm. Sounds like temporizing. Clearly, working to produce a deliberately addictive product that is corrosive to health and happiness, is bad. If the product has any redeeming feature, and a reasonable legitimate market, isn't that different in more than a qualitative way?

If I worked at McD's National, and were juggling fat/salt/sugar to produce the most addictive fries, then I'd call that unethical. But to sell beef burgers to folks in a hurry for lunch, no.

> But to sell beef burgers to folks in a hurry for lunch, no.

Even if the person you're selling to is obese and will likely die an early death if the person in question continues his or hers behavior?

I would be a terrible counter person. I wouldn't sell to the addicted, just like a bartender has to cut off drunks. And I'd probably get fired. So yeah.

I'm going to play devil's advocate here; I don't actually know what my own opinion about this is, and I never gamble online so I don't even know much about it or how horrible it might be. So I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions that should hopefully help you work out exactly how you got to your opinion and either change it or hold it more firmly.

Why do you say "online casinos are designed in such a way to attract addicts"? Aren't they just designed to attract people who want to use them, which happens to include addicts?

Aren't you assuming that addicts are helpless people with absolutely no agency of their own? Given that this isn't a question of chemical dependency, aren't they morally responsible for exercising better judgement? I mean, many people gamble without any problems. Why should the casino be considered immoral because of someone else's poor choices?

Is online gambling especially heinous for some reason you haven't clearly articulated, or do you apply this thinking to other things people may become addicted to as well with a similar joy/grief tradeoff? It would apply to recreational drugs, I'm certain. Someone else already asked about social media. Do you think this way about other aspects of society?

What's the proper way of differentiating between chemical addiction, experiential addiction, and neither?

I only raise chemical addiction as a possible exception because nearly everybody agrees there are ways to become addicted to certain chemicals without somehow choosing to do so first, e.g. you get hurt in an accident that is no fault of your own and the doctors administer medication to you that you become addicted to.

Why limit to online casinos? WMS Gaming creates tons of slot and video lottery terminals, wouldn't it be just as unethical to work there than on online casinos?

Exactly. Online casinos are just the tip of the iceberg here. Unbelievably large sums of money and grief are lost and created respectively in real world lotteries and casinos which nowadays are almost entirely computerized - thus made up by developers working in tech companies.

I do think that online casinos may get a worse reputation when it comes to those in the US because online gambling is illegal so these companies that offer it are set up outside of the US jurisdiction. Who knows what they will pay out or if they ever do pay out. Casinos in the US are bound by the governing body of the state they are located in to have certain payouts when it comes to machines. Online gambling doesn't necessarily have that.

most mobile and console game companies sleep jjust fine making those technologies for kids.

There are definitely unethical mobile game companies that are as bad or worse than online casinos, but there are also wholesome ones.

No. Imo.

But your question is not ethical but your own belief system... Not ours.

Here is an example. The founder of Mothers Against drunk driving took a job with a liquor industry (1). Now that is unethical imo

(1) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-01-15/news/940115013...

Why do you ask? What change in your own behaviour would the different answers elicit?

Is this just an intellectual exercise? In that case, it's a reasonable question that might lead to an interesting conversation.

Are you thinking of working for one, but worried about how you would feel? In that case, I don't think any amount of reassurance from internet strangers would help.

Are you worried about how others might view you if you have it on your CV? That may be a valid concern, but in that case, it's an XY problem.

Are you looking at a pile of CVs, and thinking about whether to reject someone on these "ethical" grounds? You don't know what predicament caused the candidate to take that job, or to (want to) leave it, or the exact nature of what they did there.

If you work on technology that can help to identify harmful play and intervene appropriately, then you are probably creating technology that makes the world better, even if you are doing so for a company whose other products may be making the world worse.

Tl;dr No

The field of probability was invented by largely French philosophers wanting to understand the math behind casino games. Casino games are nothing more (or less) than pure math. The 'unethical' part of casino comes from operators extracting too large of an edge. Obviously, the operator needs to make something to get paid to run the game, but the 'house edge' can be around 10%.

When thinking about gambling being ethical or not, IMO the important question is the price of the risk, not the mechanic of money traded for risk. Money for risk is very common (think insurance for example). Nobody would argue insurance is unethical. But if a home owner policy cost the price of the house annually, people would consider that unethical.

Weighing the harm of loss against the benefit of entertainment is one way to decide. An alternative viewpoint is whether the freedom to gamble is more or less important than protecting the irresponsible.

You may also want to consider that your non-participation in an activity may not affect whether it happens or not. Arguably, there will always be a provider of gambling services where it is legal (and maybe even where it isn't). From this perspective, the most ethical choice may be to be to provide the most ethical gambling service. However, this may be commercially challenging.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether this is ethical, as ethics is subjective.

As a person who enjoys playing the lotto, losing money in poker, and buying high/selling low, yes. It is unethical. But most things that are fun are. I feel OK with gambling and do it every day in one of those three activities, but I have an income to support losing a few hundred dollars per day and it only kind of hurt.

I wish that casinos had to do more to ensure the person gambling had the ability to lose the money, but that adds a lot of regulatory burdens that a lot of people would find onerous on free market enterprises (I don't, but that is a political discussion not meant for this topic).

Hard to answer.

Actually I'd really hear answers about a similar question: Is working on p2w games unethical?

I was wondering about that in connection with the whole Battlefront 2 fiasco. EA got a lot of flak but I remember when Apple announced the in-app purchase for free apps back in 2009. Feels like it was only yesterday but that was when a lot of things clearly changed.


The question is, in my mind, is P2W (or even, controversially, cosmetic loot boxes) gaming different than gambling? Does the fact that your rewards are digital instead of monetary really matter when discussing addiction?

Obviously my answer is that yes, it is unethical. The problem is (and this applies to gambling as well) that it's too damned profitable for companies to give it up without a huge fight.

> The amount of joy people get from gambling for fun is outweighed by the amount of grief gambling addiction causes.

Show me some empirical data backing this belief and you might have an actual argument.

Gambling (in moderation) is literally the only thing my parents have in common (other than mutual respect), and they've been together nearly 50 years.

I have definitely enjoyed my trips to Mohegan Sun, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, even if I've lost money on the trip.

The vast majority of people who gamble are not addicted to it and participate in moderation.

Here's the argument from an Effective Altruism perspective: if you want to earn money from gambling, you should offset the "badness" with some "goodness". Volunteer your skills for charity or open source, and contribute money to high impact charities (maybe even ones that help gamblers?).


In my opinion casinos take advantage of a loophole in human psychology to take money from people who can't afford it, so having anything to do with that is unethical.

Yes. A casino exists only to take advantage of vulnerable individuals and drain them of their money. It is an immoral business. Therefore, working to help a casino is also immoral.

Devils advocate argument:

I work at an e-commerce company that is designed and incentivized to sell as much product as possible. Are we taking advantage of "shopping addicts"? Where is the line drawn between capitalism and morality?

Sidenote: Casinos also exist to provide entertainment value. I don't mind spending $20 on blackjack just to play with my friends and talk with new people. Just because there is a subset of individuals that can't handle that entertainment responsibly doesn't mean that the business itself is immoral.

> I work at an e-commerce company that is designed and incentivized to sell as much product as possible.

Yes. Why wouldn't it be? That's why regulations regarding advertisement and fair pricing were created, even though they're not very effective in the digital world. Still, it could be a lot worse.

Very good point. The distinction may be that a casino operates on the premise that playing will make you rich some lucky day - whereas when you shop, financial loss is not obfuscated away as a means to your big payday.

Yes, but the marketing machine still makes you want that shiny thing that you don't need. It will make you happy for about 5 minutes.

I'm sorry, but your appeal to morality is a fallacy, and thus a bullshit argument. I, and everyone I know who has gone to one, has enjoyed our trips to Vegas and Atlantic City. We've played moderately, and see it as entertainment. Now, if you have evidence/empirical data that shows that gambling causes more misery than joy, by all means, present it!

Alcohol is not bad because some small percentage of people get addicted. Neither is online gaming, neither is sex, neither is marijuana, neither is gambling.

Now, nicotine... THERE you might have an argument. But even that is fraught with difficulty: http://discovermagazine.com/2014/march/13-nicotine-fix

as unethical as working for tobacco companies.

Tobacco industry is made up of wholly legal and aboveboard business enterprises with many happy users.

They have a long history of malicious behavior, but it is not, on the face of it, wrong to take such a job.

But I still might avoid it, myself. Once bitten, twice shy. You spend fifty years conspiring to conceal damages to your own customers and maybe I prefer not to work for you even after you stop doing it

Just because an endeavor is legal, does not make it ethical. I agree with parent: working for a casino is about as unethical as working for a tobacco company. Your work will unquestionably lead to harm in the lives of others.

This kind of thinking paradoxically makes investing in those ventures profitable. The "vice" has extra returns because there is less investor competition.

Yes, but that applies to just about every programming job too. Is programming unethical? I mean your are automating jobs away. It certainly harms lives.

By that measure taking a job is unethical because it takes away a job that another might perform...

Yes, working for an industry that does harm to people is unethical. However, the censure that is deserved is proportional to the the "status" of the position they occupy in the industry, e.g. CEOs > Professionals > Blue Collar > Part Timers. Its not just the influence the different people have on the industries or companies they work in, its also a function of their autonomy. A lot of people have little choice but to take whatever job they can get, because they have other obligations as well: to their selves, to their families, and to their communities.

Programmers have to have jobs just as much as blue collar people. I mean everything except (possibly) the CEO has to work for income.

Also, at some point you are going to be asked to do something you know is effed up.

Tobacco kills around 10x more people than heroin (at least in the US).

Do you have a source for that?

I find that figure incredibly dubious considering that tobacco requires years of chronic use before it kills you, and it typically doesn't kill you in a way that is entirely attributable to that single cause.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least, given the prevalence of the use of each in society.

With job market as it is in EU and recruitment hell in the industry I would take any decently paying job, sorry.

No it is not. Every company to some extent, does something that can be viewed as unethical. Whether its selling user data without notice, or fancy tax practices, etc. The old saying "Don't throw stones if you live in a glass house" applies here.

We can argue our way into genocide and war that way. Anything, really.

Yes there are some purely counterproductive businesses. Online casinos may be that, if they are designed solely to fleece people and hook the addicted.

It really depends on your own position on Gambling. I'm of the mind that the same kind of person who throws money away at a Casino would have thrown it away somewhere else. I see nothing wrong with selling a person a service they want.

It depends on what the profits are used for.

What about Facebook, it is also designed to be addictive, so you can spend as much time on it as possible to be shown ads?

Hardly a fair comparison. You will not blow your (and potentially your family's) savings by browsing facebook and seeing being shown ads.

Neither will everyone that uses a casino. Much like not everyone that uses Facebook becomes embroiled in family/friend/random internet stranger drama, unknowingly teaches their children that staring at a tiny screen rather than conversing is 'normal' or breaks up their family by reconnecting with their highschool sweetheart.

Note - not for or against online casinos, just disagree with your point.

> You will not blow your (and potentially your family's) savings by browsing facebook and seeing being shown ads.

Ads often incite people to buy things. This must work at least some of the time, or ads wouldn't exist. So some people do spend their money on unnecessary junk through browsing facebook.

To be fair, a good share (I'd say most ? But data is needed ^^) of advertising is designed to make you prefer a brand over an other once you decided you want a new product. I'm not sure there's really a lot designed to make you do a buy decision without a preexisting want (<--- I'm trying to avoid the word need here, because it's definitely not a need, but my english isn't good enough)

You argument still holds that advertising still makes you possibily spend more for the exact same thing, but it's hardly comparable to gambling addictive behaviours in my opinion.

It's seems to me the massive advertising machine in the US produces far more collateral damage (in the form of environmental degradation from people buying junk designed with planned obsolescense) than gambling.

I've seen numerous people fired for browsing Facebook at work. Not saying you're right or wrong, just saying it's not nearly that cut and dry and I think you'd agree if you think about it for a bit.

Not to mention all scamming and casino ads that are running on Facebook and Google for that matter...

Whataboutism logical fallacy.


It's not a fallacy because GP didn't use it to refute an argument, he merely asked a question.

It's illegal. Working for people who break the law for money is generally considered to be unethical.

Even if you, personally, feel OK about it, ask yourself what would happen if a prospective (future) employer found out about your activities.

Not touching the moral issue, but online gambling is definitely legal in many countries in Europe, where vastly advertised and known betting and poker websites exist.

Hmm, this is very debatable. I know about a dozen or so people who developed software for kind-of-online-casinos (well known UK bookies who have online games on their sites and I'd say they definitely operate legally) for years. It actually had been a full-time job for all of them. None of them had any problems finding their next job(s); however also none of them is US-based. As usual, YMMV.

OP clarified that it's legal where he lives.

I believe in most countries online gambling is not illegal per se, but definitely regulated.


>It's illegal

Doesn't that depend on your location?

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