In what might be the opening salvo of a campaign to reverse 46 years of federal anti-cross-border gambling action, Barney Frank has introduced a bill to legalize Internet gaming. From Marketwatch:
Attempting to roll back a ban on online gambling, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank introduced on Thursday a bill that would permit Americans to place bets over the Internet.
Frank’s bill would enable companies to be licensed to accept bets and wagers online from individuals in the U.S.
The bill would exempt the operators from current restrictions on online gambling and would require licensed companies to have protections in place against underage and compulsive gambling, money laundering and fraud. Read text of the bill.
Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, called existing Internet-gambling law “an inappropriate interference on the personal freedom of Americans” that should be undone.
Current law prevents U.S. banks and credit-card companies from processing payments to online-gambling businesses outside the country.
Speaking to reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference, Frank said he doesn’t gamble himself but said the bill is meant to address personal choice.
“This [current bill] is an intrusion on individual liberties,” Frank said. On Wednesday, Frank called Internet gambling a “victimless crime.”
The estimated 12 million to 20 million online gamblers in the U.S. contribute more than half the industry’s estimated worldwide annual revenue of $12 billion, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Internet gambling would be legal under Rep. Frank’s bill – MarketWatch
Online poker players will no doubt cheer the bill. I’ve got to confess that I don’t know enough about the political climate in Congress right now to handicap the bill’s chances. I just think we should keep in mind that we’re heading into what promises to be an extremely divisive poltical season en route to the 2008 presidential campaign, so you’ve got to think about how a yea or nay vote would help or hurt members of Congress and their respective parties.
I’m not sure that wrapping online gambling in the flag of personal liberty is the best tack for Frank to take, because there’s a fairly solid body of law that says gambling is not an inalienable right. Here’s why:
In 1960, the Nevada Gaming Control Board published it’s “Black Book,” or list of excluded persons. It had on it 11 men suspected of links to organzied crime–many hadn’t been convicted of anything–who were to be barred from all Nevada casinos. One of the men, John Marshall, was ejected from the Desert Inn after deliberately flouting the ban. Marshall sued just about everyone–governor Grant Sawyer, the Control Board, and the DI–and argued his case up to the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Marshall’s exlcusion was justifiable and not a violation of his 14th amendment rights, though the court made it clear that the Control Board should follow regular procedures in putting people in the Black Book.
The upshot of this is that gambling isn’t a natural right: if a state or federal government can give a reasonable explanation of why you shouldn’t be allowed to gamble, you can’t gamble. And this is precisely the argument the Justice Department has used, arguing that “unregulated” online gambling is a conduit for money laundering and organized crime. You can disagree over whether they’ve proven that, but I’m not sure that you’d win in court.
The better rationale for legalization, looking at history, is dollars and cents: Legalizing online gaming will allow states to channel some of the money spent on it to the public good. A secondary argument should be that, by allowing already-regulated U.S. and European companies into the field, fly-by-night and criminally-linked competitors will be driven out. Regulation, rather than prohibition, may be a more effective regime for player protection and crime control, and it would definitely benefit states–at least those that chose to legalize it.