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|Online Gambling Laws a Good Bet|
|14 Oct 2002|
Popular lore proclaims that the two most reliable moneymakers on the Internet target the basic human drives of sex and greed -- that is, pornography and gambling.
The reality is likely not that simple, but there's certainly a tremendous quantity of both available on a vast array of websites, as well as in spam, banners and pop-up ads.
Porn and gambling also share something else in common. They've both been the subject of legislative actions of various sorts, in the United States and in jurisdictions around the world.
Very broad anti-porn efforts such as the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) are clearly misguided and easily run afoul of legitimate free speech rights and questions of personal interpretation.
However, the case for Internet anti-gambling laws may have considerably more merit to its arguments.
The existing U.S. Federal Wire Act, enacted around 40 years ago, allegedly bans Internet sports gambling across state lines (with some exceptions now for off-track horse race betting). Its applicability to non-sports betting is problematic and the subject of continuing debate and court activity.
Of course, all manner of Internet gambling sites are flourishing. Most of them keep their businesses and servers outside the United States to try to avoid risk of prosecution, but U.S. firms by and large don't seem to be terribly shy about accepting online gambling ads.
Trying to prevent U.S. Internet users from accessing offshore gambling sites is basically hopeless and largely a waste of time.
So recent legislative efforts have instead been targeting the financial institutions that accept users' credit cards, debit cards or bank account transfers, attempting to make it illegal to use these sorts of payment systems for Internet gambling. Some banks have already taken steps toward banning such transactions.
It might be argued that there's no need for these kinds of laws. If people want to engage in the inherently losing proposition that is gambling, let them dig their own financial graves. You can't legislate against stupidity.
On the other hand, there are distinct consumer protection aspects to this issue. Gambling addiction, like alcoholism, is widely recognized as a disease, and the potential for unscrupulous Internet gambling operators to fleece the vulnerable is very high, more so than in most non-Net gambling situations.
Dealing with effectively unregulated offshore gambling sites is hard enough. Will they really pay off? Will your credit card or bank account information end up floating around on a fraud ring's list?
For sports betting, or games involving other public information like state lotto numbers, the actual odds and results are at least available in some verifiable form.
Yet many of the Internet gambling operations offer fully-computerized simulated games like blackjack, roulette, slots and the like, where they simply announce that you win, or more likely, that you lose again. Are they honest? There's no way to really know, but assuming they're legit without hard evidence is an incredible leap of faith.
The gambling machines you find in Vegas are also computerized. Look behind the spinning mechanical wheels of the slot machines and you'll find tech chips and circuits. But unlike most of the offshore Net gambling sites, the machines in Nevada are highly regulated by law, more rigorously than electronic voting machines in most of the country.
The Vegas slots and their source code must be pre-approved by a Nevada state agency, and the random-number techniques employed are analyzed. The machines must provide detailed records of all pay-ins and payouts.
Still, even in the regulated environment of physical casinos, questions about the honesty of gambling equipment persist.
It would be unfair to assume that every offshore Internet gambling firm is dishonest and untrustworthy. After all, just because so many of them are located in shadowy havens and use software whose legitimacy is utterly unknown, it's still possible that some of these guys are straight arrows.
For that matter, perhaps some of those spam e-mails offering you millions of bucks from Nigeria are on the level as well.
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