Anyone who spends any time on the Internet these days becomes all too familiar with opportunities to play Texas hold ‘em and other forms of online poker and gambling. There’s no escaping the advertisements and spam e-mail.
The ads themselves are nuisances that have helped drive the growing spam-blocker industry. But the gambling itself is far more serious. Many Americans may not be aware that online gambling is illegal and is currently driven by off-shore entities. One report estimated that in 2005 Americans bet $5.9 billion via Internet gambling.
Supporters of gambling respond with a collective shrug and an accusation that opponents are ruining the harmless fun. They view gambling as innocent entertainment—laissez les bon temps roulez! Nevertheless, while the live-and-let-live ethos always strikes a responsive chord among Americans, this perspective on gambling is tragically flawed.
What’s wrong with Internet gambling? The answer gambling analysts have given is ABC: Addiction, Bankruptcy and Crime.
Gateway to Trouble
The addictive nature of gambling is well-established, and the American Psychiatric Association includes gambling addiction as a psychological pathology. The easy access of the Internet takes this existing problem and ratchets it up. Where before the compulsive gambler had to leave home to find an outlet for his addiction, today he has only to turn on his computer and have a credit card ready. Twenty-four hours a day.
In 1999, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission noted with concern that the unique access afforded by the Internet is a particular problem. Because the Internet offers gamblers such anonymity, it exacerbates the problem of “pathological” gambling and it enables young people, who would not be allowed to gamble in a casino in person, a tantalizing gateway to trouble.
The latest research finds that personal bankruptcy rates are 100% higher in counties with casinos than in those without. What happens when the gambler, in the comfort of his own home, is betting against an unseen credit card limit, rather than the physical chips on the table? It’s just too easy.
The connection between crime and gambling is also well-established: Crime tripled in Atlantic City in the three years after the introduction of casinos. Again, the Internet is an enabler for an old, entrenched problem. The commission’s concerns about crime and gambling on the Internet were “particularly acute.” Both the Department of Justice and the State Department have expressed concern to Congress that Internet gambling is a national security concern when old-fashioned money laundering meets 21st-Century technology.
Fortunately, modern tools are available to confront these cutting-edge crimes. Because Internet gambling is dependent on credit card and wire transactions, law enforcement officials and financial institutions have an avenue to identify, pursue and prosecute illegal gambling. They need to be authorized and empowered to use those means. Two current pieces of legislation sponsored by Representatives James Leach (R.-Iowa) and Bob Goodlatte (R.-Va.) would update law enforcement tools for existing law and expand current law to encompass emerging technologies.
These commonsense measures are making a comeback after a defeat on the Hill in 2000 based on deception. The unfolding story of the Abramoff scandal involves a tawdry tale of how lobbying against the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act was dressed up, falsely, by the opposition as an effort to stop Internet gambling.
It’s time to revisit the Internet gambling issue and get it right. Law enforcement needs sophisticated tools to combat criminals with advanced technology. And the law, specifically the Wire Act—which makes gambling over telephone wires illegal and was written before the invention of the web—needs to be updated to keep pace with the Internet age.
See also: A Conservative Case for Internet Poker by Michael R. Bolcerek