Prohibition won't work for Net gambling either

Former New Jersey game enforcement chief Frank Catania says an agenda-driven minority is trying to impose its morality.

3 min read
Every attempt to regulate activity on the Internet seemingly raises questions about the proverbial slippery slope.

But if regulation of the Internet is a slippery slope, then surely an outright ban of an Internet activity constitutes falling off the cliff.

Right now, Congress is seriously considering the over-the-cliff approach in the form of the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act (H.R. 4477). This bill would cut off the ability of Americans to use the Internet for (almost) all forms of gambling. (The big exception is for those who follow and bet on horse racing, underscoring the golden rule in politics: With enough money and political muscle, special interests can win themselves an exemption.)

We all know the Internet is revolutionizing the way we obtain information, enjoy leisure time and connect with others. This prohibition attempt has little to do with the technology; it's really about some members of Congress trying to impose their own sense of morality on the Internet. The fact is that Christian conservatives pushing these bills are attempting to force their religious beliefs--that gambling is immoral--on all Americans (except those who bet on the horses).

It's time that Congress developed a consistent and sensible policy for Internet gambling.

What the bill's supporters fail to understand is that short of completely banning the Internet or heavily censoring the Internet as China does (with criticism from the U.S. government), there will always be Internet gambling available to U.S. players. The Internet sails far beyond our boundaries or the long arm of U.S. law. More than 70 countries currently regulate Internet gambling, and sites based in these countries are accessible to U.S. players. A ban on Internet gambling just doesn't make sense.

What's more, a ban on Internet gambling would not address the public-policy issues at hand--the very issues that antigaming zealots warn about--such as preventing underage gambling or offering assistance to problem gamblers.

Instead of prohibition, we should turn to regulation to deal with these problems.

State-of-the-art technology to regulate the activity, including age verification software and existing government databases, combined with proper operating procedures and strict regulation, can prevent minors from gambling online and offer greater assistance to problem gamblers.

If Internet gambling were regulated, for example, sites could cross-reference driver's license databases or voting registration lists to verify the age of players. For problem gamblers, a regulated environment provides operators with the tools to monitor online activity and be instrumental in harm minimization. And regulation of Internet gambling operations, like the regulation of the brick-and-mortar gambling industry, allows all transactions to be tracked, audited and taxed, relieving concerns over financial impropriety.

To date, the debate around Internet gambling has focused on prohibition, with little consideration of alternative approaches, including regulation. As the former director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, I understand that regulation is not simple. But I believe that strict regulation is the only effective means for controlling players and the environment in which they play.

A regulatory approach to Internet gambling is even more critical because the industry is growing in popularity. In 2005, Internet gambling was a $15 billion industry worldwide, up from $3 billion in 2000. U.S. players account for more than half of these revenues. With regulation, U.S. companies would be able to get involved in this growing industry as well, reaping financial benefits such as tax revenue and job creation.

It's time that Congress developed a consistent and sensible policy for Internet gambling. Whether the gambling entertainment is online or offline, consumers deserve diligent regulators who make sure that operators are honest, games are fair, winning players are paid promptly, problem gamblers are offered assistance or ultimately barred, and minors are prohibited from playing.

History has taught us that prohibition does not work. Instead, we need lawmakers to develop policies that offer consumer protections without restricting Internet access, freedom or innovation.