Some Bets Are Off

As someone who has always received high ratings from libertarian groups for my voting record, I was disappointed with your recent feature on Internet gambling and my legislation to stop it ("Gambler's Web," October). Reasonable people can certainly disagree on the subject, but your lead story unfairly impugned my motives and contained arguments that are belied by the facts and are of questionable adherence to libertarian principles and logic.

Author Tom W. Bell cynically ascribes the interest of elected officials in enforcing gambling laws on the Internet to a love of tax revenue from land-based casinos and political contributions from their owners. Had he checked my record, he would have found that I don't like those taxes or government's reliance on the revenues they generate and I don't take money from gambling organizations. I have long opposed state-sponsored gambling and recently supported an effort to repeal the lottery in my state. So argue the merits of your position, Mr. Bell--don't try to win by slyly impugning my motives (inaccurately at that!).

I've also never misrepresented my bill as a "mere update of the Wire Act." That's only half of what it does--ensuring that law enforcement will retain the ability to prosecute the same sports gambling crimes in the future that it does today. My bill also addresses the enforcement gaps in nonsports gambling on the Internet--gambling that violates the law in virtually every state but which (because cyberspace does not recognize state boundaries) can only be enforced only at the federal level. The state attorneys general are considered pretty good federalists, resisting attempts at federal "power grabs." Yet they recognized the necessity of federal assistance in this area and asked me to introduce my legislation.

Ironically, Mr. Bell also criticizes my legislation because it doesn't prohibit enough gambling but contains what he calls "loopholes" that allow some forms of gambling to continue in the electronic arena. Due to the complexity of gambling laws in the nation and the fact that my bill attempts only to prevent the expansion of gambling rather than rolling back existing practices, such provisions are necessary. I don't like them; does Mr. Bell? If so, then he's being hypocritical for criticizing my bill. If not, why does he want to stop betting at Churchill Downs but not on the Internet?

After fretting about the effect of my legislation, Mr. Bell postulates that it won't work--that jurisdictional and technological problems will prevent effective enforcement. It is not the purpose of the bill to gain jurisdiction over the operators of off-shore casinos; rather, the intent is to stop the illegal activity from being conducted in the United States by shutting down access to illegal gambling Web sites. That may not always be easy, but when it is technically feasible, Internet service providers must do so.

Finally, Mr. Bell makes the astounding claim that Internet gambling is in fact beneficial to society, helping to get people out of smoky casinos, where they are plied with liquor and encouraged to keep betting, and into cybercasinos, where help for gambling addicts is just a "click" away. Leaving aside the speciousness of bragging about which form of harmful activity provides the best information about how to avoid doing it, experts agree that Internet gambling exacerbates the problems of conventional gambling because it removes the barriers to addiction. Its ease of access and repetition, and its privacy and, hence, lack of societal stigma, make electronic gambling what one professor has called "the crack cocaine of gambling."

Experts have testified that youth gambling will soon rival drug abuse as the biggest problem facing our children. Mr. Bell argues that cybercasinos are better equipped to check the age of participants but then quickly admits that Internet gambling will "marginally increase the chances that some kids will gamble." Amazingly, he argues that we should accept this outcome due to the benefits he claims Internet gambling will bring, such as movies on demand and better, more honest, and more competitive gambling. No thanks.

But the most telling point is how pleased Mr. Bell is that Internet gambling allows people to "escape the grip of merely local legislation"--in other words, to break the laws their fellow citizens have enacted. Principled people who wish for unlimited opportunities to gamble, or to do anything currently unlawful, should seek to convince their fellow citizens to change the law, not break it.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)
Washington, D.C.

Tom W. Bell replies: I certainly agree with Sen. Kyl that opinions about Internet gambling differ, and rightly so. Reasonable people base their opinions on facts, however. I thus suggest that Kyl worry less about what he thinks my article implied and more about what it actually said.

It nowhere attempted to diagnose Kyl's motives for authoring the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. His particular motives did not matter to the analysis. Whether good or bad, they inspired a bill that protects the incumbent gambling industry from upstart Internet competitors. Regarding that, the article's central claim, Kyl remains notably silent.

Does Mr. Kyl regret that strange bedfellows hijacked his pure-hearted political crusade, turning it into a special-interest junket? Again, it does not matter. It matters only that Kyl's intentions launched this particular road trip to ruin. He cannot escape responsibility by claiming that he meant well.

Kyl should pay more attention to what he himself has said, too. He has on several occasions defended his Internet Gambling Prohibition Act solely in terms of updating existing law. Take, for instance, his comments during the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of his bill on June 17, 1999: "The advent of the Internet, a communications media not envisioned by the Wire Act, requires enactment of a new law to address the activities in cyberspace. The essence of the bill is that it bans gambling on the Internet, just as the Wire Act prohibited gambling over the wires."

As Kyl now admits, however, his Internet Gambling Prohibition Act does a great deal more than just update the Wire Act. His bill would for the first time ban gambling-related transmissions that do not cross state lines or that travel between states which allow the gambling in question. Kyl's bill would also redefine "gambling business" to include anyone who wins more than $2,000 in one day. In short, his bill would vastly expand federal power in an area traditionally left to the states.

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