Gambling on the Net

"BIG excitement and BIG fun are waiting for you.... A definite improvement over flying to Las Vegas or Monte Carlo.... We have Poker, Slots, Roulette.... "

So goes the on-screen introduction to Casino Royale, one of about three dozen Internet gambling sites. "Can you think of anything better than your own private casino waiting for you at any time?," Casino Royale asks.

Yes, we can.

Apparently Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, who chairs the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on technology, terrorism, and government information, can think of something better, too. He's introduced a bill, backed by a number of state attorneys general, banning Internet gambling. The Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1997 would extend to computers a federal law prohibiting interstate gambling by phone. It's expected to come before the Judiciary Committee this month.

The why of the legislation is clear. "If gambling in general is a dumb bet, then gambling on the Internet is a very dumb bet," Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle told the subcommittee recently. He's right.

The potential for fraud in cyberspace is great. When registering, online gamblers give a credit card number and often a deposit. Their winnings are supposed to be credited to their account. Of course there's no guarantee that there will be winnings, or that they will be deposited. Then there's the matter of credit card numbers floating who knows where besides the declared Web site. There's also little to keep children from sitting down at a computer and placing a bet.

Gambling, in whatever form, is not "harmless entertainment," nor is it good economics. The lure of easy money can lead to a host of problems in families and communities. And Internet gambling has the added danger that it's available around the clock.

But knowing what to do about it and how to do it is difficult. Even well-intentioned efforts to regulate offensive material on the Net can stumble, as we saw last spring when a federal appeals court panel found the Communications Decency Act at odds with the First Amendment.

There are practical problems, too. As a recent Monitor article explained, when a New Yorker travels to Las Vegas, it's easy to tell where the betting is taking place. But when the New Yorker uses his home computer to open an account with an online casino in Idaho, where is the gambling occurring? Which state's gambling laws apply?

"We know where the [gambling] sites are," a spokesman for Senator Kyl says. "Using the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, law enforcement could ask the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut those sites down. If the site providers refuse, they can be taken to court."

That may be easier said than done. But it doesn't mean the legislation isn't important or won't have a positive effect. It should foster much-needed discussion about gambling and the Internet. And it will make clear that this is an issue the government should be serious about.

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