Rolling Cyber Dice

Betting over the Internet is growing at a distressing rate. With $7.5 billion estimated to be spent this year, and $18.4 billion by 2010, gambling on the Web doesn't need any more encouragement.

And yet, the World Trade Organization (WTO) gave a preliminary ruling last week that the United States cannot block online gambling from foreign websites. Such commercial activity, the WTO claimed, is covered under global trade agreements.

The case was brought against the US by the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which turned to Internet gambling as a way to offset a sagging tourist trade - not unlike many US states which turn to casinos to help offset budget deficits.

The decision, if upheld, could open the cyber door wider, beyond the millions of US gamblers who already visit some 1,800 offshore Internet casinos, far from the reach of the US Justice Department.

The US restrains all types of gambling for good reasons, such as the harm it can do to addicts, but its ability to do so will be compromised if the ruling stands. The Justice Department says online betting is illegal, and cites the 1961 Wire Act (which prohibits placing or taking bets across state lines using the telephone or wire services) to support its view. That law should be amended to specifically include Internet gaming. Bills pending in the US House and Senate would do just that.

The change is especially needed to protect children, who can easily access online gaming sites. But adults addicted to gambling need protection, too. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that only 1 in 100 problem gamblers is getting the help he needs.

Citigroup, one of the world's largest banking companies, agreed in 2002 to stop processing online bets by persons using its credit cards, but other banks could do more to help stop online betting.

Bush administration officials already have said they'd fight the WTO ruling. We hope the WTO's bad decision will be corrected on appeal.

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