Bolting the Cybergates A virtual casino in every home? Not if Australian officials win an uphill battle to control the Internet

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The main street of alice springs isn't known for its global corporations. But in this Australian desert town, one of Hartley Street's tenants is busily serving clients in 115 countries. Ever since it secured a license in 1996, Centrebet has been expanding into the vast cyber-arena of Internet wagering. It now takes bets around the clock in 10 currencies and six languages on 3,000 sporting events. Want a flutter on Danish soccer? No problem. Feeling lucky about ice hockey in Stockholm? Go for it. There's an international explosion in online gambling under way, and Centrebet, with an annual turnover of $A200 million, has been a big winner. "Four and a half years ago, there were zero players," says sports betting manager Gerard Daffy. "Now there are millions."

There could be many fewer if Australia's government has its way. Federal legislation, due for debate in the Senate this week, aims to stop local companies offering online and interactive gaming and wagering to Australians-though they'll still be able to trade with foreigners-with fines of up to $A1.1 million a day. The reason, Federal Information Technology Minister Richard Alston says, is "Australia's status as one of the world's leading problem-gambling nations." The effect, argue operators and Internet industry groups, will be a tough-to-enforce ban and increased use of overseas online casinos and bookmakers-many of them unscrupulous.

A 1999 Productivity Commission report found that 290,000 Australians are "problem gamblers"-130,000 of them with a severe problem-losing an average of $A12,000 each a year. Online gambling isn't throwing up addicts yet, say addiction counseling services, but they fear it soon will. "It's accessible gambling-you don't have to go down the road, you don't have to get in the car," says Neil Mellor, coordinator of Victoria's Gambler's Help Line. Already, the Productivity Commission has found, some 90,000 Australians have tried their luck in cyberspace.

There they would have found hundreds of gambling sites, which require that players enter credit card details or transfer funds into personal casino accounts. There's one-cent blackjack, bonuses for first-time players and cash for referring friends. Standards vary wildly, but those of Australian sites are relatively high: a 2000 Senate report ranked the Australian industry "a market leader" with "a world-class reputation." And big prospects-the Australian Casino Association (a.c.a.) last year estimated that revenue, mostly from overseas, would top $A1.3 billion by 2005.

The proposed ban won't apply to Australians accessing websites overseas. But a complaints-based system would be set up to filter out such sites. It won't be able to reach them all, argue furious online operators. "How are they stopping problem gambling by allowing Australians to access shonky overseas operators?" says a.c.a. head Chris Downy. With 80% of Centrebet's business coming from overseas, "it's not the end of the world for us," says the company's Daffy,"but there's no logic in this at all."

There are also technical concerns. The Senate inquiry cautioned against a ban on the grounds that it "could be compromised by emerging technologies." Some Australian sites have a policy of blocking players from the U.S. (where online gaming is illegal in some states) by screening would-be gamblers on the basis of their Internet Protocol address-the code assigned to every computer accessing the Internet. Gamblers without computer expertise "will probably be stopped" by such devices, says Phil McCrea, ceo of the Australian Centre for Advanced Computing and Communications and co-author of a csiro report on Internet access blocking. But "those who are technically savvy will be able to develop ways around it." Gamblers who want to mask their location, for example, can use "anonymizer" services. A ban "is essentially a futile exercise," says Ian Webster, of Internet research group www.consult. "Governments around the world have raised these issues, and they've largely been shown to be ineffectual in a technical sense."

Monitoring the bill's fate in the Senate will be countries like South Africa, which is looking at Australian-style regulations, and the U.K., whose government is considering a recommendation by the national gaming board that it legalize online casinos. Board secretary Tom Kavanagh says he is puzzled by Australia's move: "It seems a perverse system where it's alright to take bets from foreigners, but not from Australians." Phil McCrea thinks the bill sets a worrying precedent for Australia's fledgling e-commerce industry. "The government seems not to grasp that the Internet is as essential to our economy as physical infrastructure-if not more so," he says. "So any attempt to tinker with it sends the wrong message, not only to Australian industry but also to our investors overseas."

Minister Alston wants a preemptive strike against technology that he warns could "make every home a virtual casino." As well as keeping Australians out of local sites, the government hopes to warn them of the possible risks of overseas sites. But many believe hard-core gambers will still get their fix. "Those who are serious about gambling will go offshore," says Barry Evans, director of the Queensland counseling group Northern Rivers Gambling Service. "Prohibition has never worked in any area of addiction." Factor in the difficulty of taming the Internet, and the Australian government has an almighty challenge ahead.