A Gambling E-Nation?

THE House of Representatives voted this week not to ban Internet gambling. That is, a fairly large majority of members voted for the ban, but under a rule for bringing the measure to a vote without amendments, a two-thirds majority was needed.

That was more than proponents could muster. So arcane House procedures helped shelve efforts to close off yet another frontier of gambling, for this year at least.

This subject won't go away, however. Online gaming has exploded in recent years, growing from virtually zero into a $1.2 billion business. Over the next two years, it's expected to balloon to more than $3 billion. Some 700 Web sites are devoted to gambling, and that number grows daily.

Considering the potential for fraud and other criminality posed by this online industry, to say nothing of the possibility of increased compulsive gambling as the home computer becomes a virtual casino, legislative action is called for. The potential impact on children, who can't legally participate in other forms of gambling, is itself reason enough to act.

The House bill, unlike its Senate counterpart that passed rather quietly last November, brought a flood of opposition. The increasingly potent online gaming industry itself fought against the bill, of course. But so did state governments, which want to use the Internet to market their lottery tickets. Many high-tech firms, who either help write the gambling software or just don't want government intrusion on the Web, chimed in with nays.

On the other side were antigambling, pro-family groups, as well as established casinos concerned about online competition. Some sports interests too, such as the NCAA, wanted a ban. They're worried, for good cause, that e-wagering could undermine the integrity of athletic contests.

Horse and dog tracks became major backers of the bill when they were exempted from the online ban. This was a weakness in the bill, since it would have been a boon to those betting industries, giving clearer legal status to their ongoing electronic wagering practices.

All of which points to how difficult it has become to draw a clear line to limit the growth of gambling. Not just the politics are hard, but the technical aspects of controlling Web gaming operations, many of which originate off-shore, are daunting.

Still, it's a line worth drawing. Congress should keep trying.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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