Justice served on internet gambling

A legal opinion by the Justice Department reinstates a long-held interpretation of a 1961 law against gambling by electronic means. States moving toward online gaming should take note.

A game of internet slots is under way on a free-play site in Atlantic City, N.J.

The Justice Department issued a legal opinion Monday that will provide one more tool for parents to control their teens’ online activity. It might also help the high number of poor people in the United States who lose money on interstate lottery contests. The 23-page opinion simply states that a 1961 federal law, called the Wire Act, does indeed prohibit all internet gambling across state lines.

That opinion reverses one by the Obama Justice Department seven years ago. It will now reinstate federal guardrails as more states move to allow online gambling within their borders or try to expand “mega” lotteries to personal digital devices across the country.

The earlier opinion was issued in 2011 when recession-hit states were seeking new sources of revenue from gambling. It is widely seen as misinterpreting the intent of Congress to contain the ill effects of gambling across state lines with electronic communications. Before 2011, the Justice Department had long applied the 1961 statute to all sorts of gambling.

As some states have since learned, criminal operators and big gambling companies are very difficult to control without federal help. Tech-savvy children anywhere can easily access online sites. And offshore firms are not easy to prosecute.

“States with legalized sports betting simply do not have the resources to prevent their residents from migrating to these illegal offshore sportsbooks and local bookies where the odds are better, bonuses larger, and there’s no worry about reporting winnings to the IRS,” says Jon Bruning, former attorney general of Nebraska.

With the new opinion, Justice officials must decide when states have crossed a line by promoting gambling. Government has a strong stake in protecting the most vulnerable, such as children or problem gamblers. It also should not be in the business of advocating notions of luck as a source of success. A society advances by individual merit, the best ideas, and teamwork.

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