Minnesota orders block of online gambling sites

29 April 2009

In an effort to block online gambling sites from Minnesota residents, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Alcohol and Gaming Division (AGED) has asked 11 national and regional telephone and Internet Service Providers to prohibit Minnesota-based computers from accessing nearly 200 online gaming sites.

In an announcement made Wednesday, the AGED said written notification of this request has been served to AT&T Internet Services, Charter Communications, Comcast Cable, Direct TV, Dish Network, Embarq, Sprint/Nextel, Frontier Communications, Qwest, Verizon Wireless and Wildblue Communications on Monday.

The AGED says the Wire Act of 1961 gives Minnesota law enforcement agencies the authority to make this request, and that ISPs will be given two to three weeks to respond. Any non-compliance will be reported to the Federal Communications Commission.

"The statute we're citing is civil," AGED Director John Willems told Casino City. "We're not seeking to criminalize (online gambling). We're not seeking to prevent Internet gambling sites from doing their business where it's lawful -- we're just seeking to prevent them from doing it in Minnesota where it's unlawful. I'm only concerned about the state of Minnesota."

Williams also said that only sites where the actual betting took place would be blocked and that sites that simply advertise their services would not be affected.

When asked why AGED was seeking to block online gambling sites from Minnesotans, Willems acknowledged that there was no great public push for this move and said this was a natural evolution of Minnesota's belief that Internet gambling is illegal.

"Internet gambling is unlawful in Minnesota," he said. "So how do you deal with activity within the confines of our jurisdiction while understanding there's a global aspect to this?

"As the industry changed and phone companies became ISPs, and ISPs became phone companies it reached a point in time where we realized that a reasonable reading of the statute applied. Our goal is not to hurt the operators in their lawful operations. And the technology has grown to the point where it's a fairly straight forward process."

AGED's actions could face some tough legal sledding because it is citing a section of the Wire Act that requires only "common carriers" to comply with government requests to block services.

And that's where AGED will likely run into trouble, said John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

"The term common carrier is a specific legal term, and ISPs aren't common carriers," Morris told Casino City. "Even though local telephone companies are common carriers, and even though they have another line of business to provide ISP services, you can't just say a regulation that applies to common carriers applies to other aspects of the business a common carrier might have."

Morris also said the problems Minnesota's case go beyond the common carrier issues.

"Even if you got over the common carrier problem and magically edited those words out of the statute and replaced them with ISP, even if you hypothesized that, what Minnesota is doing still fails, because it fundamentally misinterprets the statute.

"The statute is designed to stop a common carrier from providing a specific service to someone running a gambling operation, like providing a phone line to gambling operation. It presumes a subscriber relationship between the common carrier and the person running the gambling service.

"That's not at all present here. The ISPs have no relationship with the gambling entity."

The legal underpinnings of Minnesota's effort from a gambling law standpoint aren't necessarily that cut and dry either, says gaming law attorney Clarke Walton.

"They're probably not within their rights based on decisions that have said the Wire Act applies only to sports betting and not other casino games like slot machines and certainly not poker," said Walton, who is based in Las Vegas.

The Poker Player's Alliance also issued a vehement challenge to the legality of AGED's actions.

"This isn't simply a heavy-handed tactic by the government," said Matt Werden, the Minnesota state director of the Poker Players Alliance. "This is a clear misrepresentation of federal law, as well as Minnesota law, used in an unprecedented way to try and censor the Internet. I don't know what U.S. Code they're reading, but it is not illegal to play this great American pastime online, and we're calling their bluff.

"The fact is, online poker is not illegal, it's not criminal, and it cannot be forcibly blocked by a state authority looking to score some political points. What are they going to do when this fails, ban poker books and burn our players at the stake?"

Vin Narayanan

Articles by Vin Narayanan is the former managing editor at Casino City and has been involved in the gaming industry for over a decade Vin is currently based in Hong Kong, where he runs his own consultant group and works as head of gaming and public relations for Mega Digital Entertainment Group.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.