On Tuesday the Caribbean nation of Antigua presented an argument to the World Trade Organization's dispute settlement body, asking that the WTO set up an arbitration panel to settle a conflict with the United States. Antigua claims that U.S. legislation, which prohibits online wagering, is not in accordance with the nation's commitment to its generalized agreement on trade and services in the WTO.
The United States blocked Antigua's request to set up an arbitration panel to resolve the dispute, but the issue will appear before the tribunal again on July 21. After that a panel must be created.
U.S. law prohibits online wagering and bans foreign companies from offering wagering services to US residents. Antigua argues the policy violates the United States' obligations in the WTO.
The laws are proving disastrous to Antigua's economy, which has turned to e-commerce and interactive gaming as a remedy for a tourism industry that's constantly ravaged by hurricanes.
"The effect of the United States enforcement of its laws is to hurt the small economy of Antigua and Barbuda, which is struggling to survive in a world of intense competition in the trade of goods and services," Senior Foreign Ministry Official Sir Ronald Sanders explained.
Two years ago Antigua had over 100 online gaming operators, which employed around 5,000 people. There are now fewer than 40 operators.
Linnet Deliy, the U.S. ambassador to the WTO, contests that interactive gaming doesn't fall within the scope of WTO authority. Gambling services both within and outside of the country, she said, are prohibited "because of the social and psychological dangers and law enforcement problems they create, particularly with respect to internet gambling and betting."
Deliy added, "The United States has grave concerns over the financial and social risks posed by such activities to its citizens, particularly but not exclusively children."
Sanders refutes the moral argument by pointing out that Antigua's strict security measurements prevent minors from accessing the gaming sites. Users must deposit funds from a bank account and submit other vital information, including proof of age.
Sanders added that while it's difficult for Antiguan operators to reach American consumers, total consumer spending in commercial casinos in the United States reached almost US$26 billion in 2001.
The WTO, which has 146 countries as members, serves several functions, including administering trade agreements, acting as a forum for trade negotiations, handling trade disputes, monitoring national trade policies and offering technical assistance and training to developing countries.
The United States has taken more cases to the WTO dispute tribunal than any other nation.