Can Congress Stop Net Wagers? Don't Bet On It

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It is testimony to the querulous nature of the U.S. House of Representatives that its members are now bogged down in debate over a piece of legislation that has virtually no chance of producing any real results. Spurred by what are probably good intentions, House members are arguing a measure designed to keep American Internet users away from web gambling sites — with apparent disregard for two important facts. One, their goal is virtually impossible to achieve, and two, the American web-surfing public may not appreciate the presence of a federal baby-sitter.

The bill, sponsored by a Virginia Republican, Robert Goodlatte, would compel Internet Service Providers (ISPs) serving the American public — well-known examples are AOL, Earthlink and WorldNet — to block sites offering gambling. It would also punish Internet venues that allowed Americans to place bets online. The players themselves would not be penalized, and the bill would maintain a hands-off approach toward certain types of gambling, specifically pari-mutuel games and lotteries, currently permitted in many states.

The problems are many. First, most sites that offer web wagering are situated offshore, making punishment by American authorities a pipe dream. Second, it's almost impossible to prevent a site that has been blocked from quickly changing its web address and resuming operations. Third, there are considerable complications caused by varying gambling regulations in the 50 states. For example, how can an ISP differentiate between in-state or out-of-state bettors making an online wager in a state where pari-mutual betting is legal?

Such concerns have led to an odd coalition opposed to the bill: conservatives who see gambling as a sin and who say the bill needs tightening, and liberals, who say it is both unenforceable and a violation of their First Amendment rights. For instance, say spokespeople from the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, even if an ISP blocks the majority of online gambling sites, that won't keep compulsive gamblers or children from surfing over to the legal, state-regulated sites. The FRC and Christian Coalition's concerns over the bill's inadequacies are joined by similar complaints from the Justice Department. On the liberal side, a spokesperson for the Center for Technology Freedom was indignant: "The fundamental operating truths of the cyber-world are simply not being recognized. Whether we like it or not, unless an activity is globally abhorred, it is impossible to banish it from the World Wide Web," he said.

TIME Digital editor Joshua Quittner agrees with CTF's premise. "In practical terms, banning sites is a pipe dream. There are so many ways to get around it." Apart from the impracticalities of trying to block international URLs from American computers, Quittner also sees the bill as a threat to basic freedoms. "I find it objectionable that the government would feel the need to act as a proxy in this way," he says. "This is exactly the kind of thing a totalitarian regime would undertake — in fact, it's exactly what the Chinese government has already done."

Related stories from MSNBC:
Is House Divided on Net Gambling?
Special Report: Internet Roulette