Banning Web Gambling Will Take More Than Luck

18 September 2000
OPINION: Banning Web Gambling Will Take More Than Luck
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on the Internet and e-commerce.
* The Internet Gambling Prohibition Act Would Divert Law Enforcement Resources To Nabbing Gamblers

By Bartlett D. Cleland

LEWISVILLE, Texas--The French have learned a lesson or two about control of the Internet. They enacted a poorly crafted law intended to enhance enforcement of French copyright laws on the Internet.

However, failing to recognize the international character of the Internet--that material on the Internet can't be limited by arbitrary political boundaries--the French law backfired. The result was pirated materials appearing on Web sites around the world.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress is headed toward the same sort of ineffective policy that results only in a federal power grab. The Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, legislation that claims only to abolish gambling on the Internet, is set for a vote in the House of Representatives.

While the members of Congress are certainly well intentioned, the attempt to stop Internet gambling will ultimately fail. The failure may not happen politically. In fact, the legislation could become law. But the legislation will fail to actually prohibit Internet gambling.

The bill simply ignores the fundamental operating truths of the cyber-world. Unless an activity is globally abhorred, which gambling is not, it will be impossible to banish it from the World Wide Web.

The legislation also ignores gambling has always been regulated at the state level. Forty-five countries now license and regulate Internet gaming. This alone makes it a safe bet a U.S. law will fail to prohibit Americans from placing a bet on, say, the NFL's Washington Redskins by e-mail.

While many members of Congress clearly understand technology and craft legislation appropriately, in this case, facts were not a priority. The bill does not make placing a bet a federal crime. Instead, the legislation would attempt to enforce the ban by deputizing online service providers. After notification by law enforcement, service providers would be required to deny access to certain Web pages.

This would forces operators to change Web addresses, a process that takes about 45 seconds. Frighteningly, Internet access is considered a government-granted privilege. Congress wants to decide who can access the Web and under what conditions.

Regardless of the provision, Attorney General Janet Reno and her Justice Department will be unable to reach sites operating in foreign countries, especially those operating with the blessing of foreign governments licensing their activities. So prosecutors are left pursuing individual gamblers who may have bet lunch on the outcome of "Monday Night Football."

The bottom line will be that law enforcement will end up chasing bettors instead of drug dealers, gamblers instead of kidnappers. France's experience provides a perfect example of legislating without regard for enforcement and without regard for the rule of law.

Of course, we can't allow advancements in technology to overrun our ability to govern. But ineffective legislation does nothing more than contribute to lawlessness. If citizens feel it is appropriate to break a law because it is unenforceable, the underpinnings of our society are weakened with respect to every crime.

This legislation now pending before the Congress does not bode well for the future of freedom or the Internet. What seems clear from economic and regulatory history is that once a market is subject to the smallest regulation, it's only a matter of time until other forms of government intervention follow.

Legislation such as this sends a clear message that regulation is OK with Congress, regardless of fundamental expansion of federal power or technological facts.

Unless we have learned from our past, we can expect to see an Internet burdened with discriminatory regulations and taxes at the local, state and federal level.

For those with moral opposition to gambling, the legislation is equally troubling. It broadens the scope of government-sanctioned gaming. In-home Internet gambling for horse and dog races would be legalized, even though it is currently illegal.

Lotteries and hotel-casinos are also exempted from the act. By permitting some types of Internet gambling despite the prohibition, the bill is a federal endorsement of gambling expansion.

For gambling opponents, one has to balance the greater evil--the uncertainty surrounding wagering by the Web or the government affirmatively endorsing betting on the Kentucky Derby from America's living rooms.

Internet gambling is the canary in the coal mine. Once politicians regulate it, nothing will stop them from taxing and regulating other activities--just because they can.

Passage of the act would prove the prospect of a regulation-free Internet too great a threat to those who feel the need to exercise control. It would also demonstrate that regardless of the topic, special interests like the horse and dog tracks, jai-alai and lotteries will be able to exempt themselves amid the chaos of legislative drafting.

In which case, too bad for the Internet, too bad for the rule of law--and too bad for those opposed to gaming as a matter of principle. End

BARTLETT D. CLELAND is director of the IPI Center for Technology Freedom. His views are not necessarily those of BridgeNews, whose ventures include the Internet site

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