Gambling on the Net -- or not?

As the country undergoes an anti-gambling backlash, Congress again attempts to restrict wagering online.

Published October 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A bill to end gambling on the Internet once and for all was introduced into the House of Representatives Thursday. The Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, sponsored by Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would make it "illegal for a person involved in a gambling business knowingly to use the Internet or any interactive computer device to place, receive or otherwise make a wager." If the law passes, all Net casinos would be outlawed, and proprietors would face up to four years in prison and a $20,000 fine if they don't comply.

As Goodlatte rather grandly declaimed in his press release, "Having a casino in one's home only encourages gambling addicts and sparks the interest of children. It is time to shine a bright light on gambling in this country and bring a quick end to illegal gambling on the Internet."

Sound familiar? It should -- this is the third anti-Net-gambling bill to hit Congress in the last two years, and probably won't be the last. Last year, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., introduced a nearly identical bill, also named the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. That bill made it all the way through a Senate Judiciary Committee vote but was never signed into law -- most likely because the Justice Department called the bill "too broad" to be constitutional.

The Goodlatte bill is apparently intended to break through the wall that the Kyl bill hit. Why this one should pass muster when previous bills haven't is anyone's guess. This bill also sweepingly bans online casinos and conflicts with existing state laws by banning gambling in states that have already legalized it. But worries about constitutionality have not stopped Congress from repeatedly trying to pass "protect the children" anti-Net bills that don't hold up constitutionally. Just look at the contortions it went through around the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act.

The latest round of Internet gambling bills comes on the heels of a national backlash against gambling. Last year, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission concluded a two-year study documenting an explosion in gambling. It begged the government for a moratorium on new casinos. Last week, Alabama voters rejected a proposed state lottery. And in South Carolina, the state courts recently mandated that all of that state's video poker machines -- all 34,000 of them, the root of a rather ugly statewide gambling problem -- must be unplugged by July 1 of next year.

But pulling the plug on Net gambling won't be so easy. The Interstate Wire Act of 1961 already prohibits sports wagering between states using telephone lines and other "wires"; unfortunately, no one has yet figured out just how this applies to the Net. Some states, including New York, have already seen court decisions against Net gambling. But because gambling laws vary from state to state and many online casinos are based offshore, critics say it would be easier to try to regulate online gambling than ban it outright.

Still, Goodlatte and Kyl seem committed to their crusades. It just remains to be seen if they'll ever hit that jackpot.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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