By GARY ROTSTEIN
June 12, 2006
Major corporations are looking at ways to make a profit from it, even though Congress is eyeing tougher restrictions.
The subject is Internet wagering, a $12 billion-a-year industry in which politics, morals, profits, individual rights and world trade issues merge and sometimes collide head-on.
This week or next, the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote on legislation aimed at countering Americans' ability to place sports bets, play poker and otherwise risk money in games of chance on their computers. Similar proposals have passed one or the other chamber of Congress over the past decade, but never both.
Meanwhile, the American Gaming Association is urging Congress to study the online-gambling issue to see if technology has provided a trustworthy way to legalize, regulate and tax online wagering, as Britain is in the process of doing. Industry giants such as MGM Mirage and Harrah's Entertainment Inc. see online players as perhaps their best new opportunity for revenue growth.
Despite its illegality, an estimated 4 million to 7 million Americans are Internet gamblers, with poker driving the latest surge. The state of Washington made wagers over the Internet a felony starting June 7, but officials there have indicated they will not be enforcing the law aggressively.
A gambling association survey has shown that online participants are younger, more affluent and better educated than their counterparts who enter actual buildings containing card tables, roulette wheels and slot machines.
Flouting of the government prohibition on Internet wagering and confusion over what's permitted are "typical of what happens when society changes faster than the law changes, both because of technology and changing social acceptability," observed I. Nelson Rose, a Whittier College law professor who tracks the gambling industry. He noted that the 1961 Wire Act used by federal authorities to deem Internet gambling illegal was passed before the computer age, before any state had a lottery and before casinos had expanded beyond Nevada.
Industry analysts believe rapid growth of Internet wagering will continue, regardless of U.S. policy, because of growing participation in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Nonetheless, a pair of bills cleared separate House committees last month aimed at keeping American citizens from taking part, even though they may already make up more than half of the world's Internet gamblers.
"Offshore online gambling Web sites are cash cows, and the greed that propels these companies leads them to solicit bettors in the United States, despite the fact that the Department of Justice already believes this activity is illegal," U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said after his Internet ban passed the Judiciary Committee on May 25.
Goodlatte's measure would expand the 1961 Wire Act, which focused on outlawing sports bookmaking by phone or telegraph. The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, prohibits credit-card companies and banks from processing payments by U.S. customers to gambling sites. Major credit-card firms have instituted their own policies to block such payments.
Supporters of the legislative crackdown have criticized Internet gambling for its potential use by minors, and easy access by compulsive gamblers who can use it 24 hours a day without leaving home.
"There's a big distinction between someone entering a casino, where you can verify their age and they have recourse to American law if they feel cheated, and being able to gamble from your bedroom with a laptop at an offshore site, whose standards of operation you don't know," said Gregory Wierzynski, a spokesman for Leach.
He said congressional aides were attempting to combine the two bills, as a single piece of legislation would have a better chance of passage by the House this month and by the Senate in the fall. Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have supported the bills.
Even some gambling proponents back the measures, saying they would add clarity to a muddled legal picture and help the government go after any unscrupulous operators. But casino-industry leaders also want the legal Internet gambling door open.
They know it's too soon to put legalization up for a vote of Congress, but believe a yearlong study could show it's possible to control who gains access to Internet wagering sites, and from what computer locations. With such controls, advocates say, it makes sense to allow some Internet gambling in states where card and casino games are legal in person. They concede there's no room to legalize sports betting, which has been off-limits everywhere outside of Nevada by federal law.
The American Gaming Association persuaded U.S. Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., to introduce a recent measure attempting to establish a nonpartisan government study.
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