- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Two House bills that will try to put a hold on the booming business of Internet poker, one sponsored by Iowa Republican James Leach and the other by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, are scheduled for a full Judiciary Committee markup today. The Goodlatte bill seeks to update the 1961 Wire Act to prohibit select forms of Internet gambling, including casino games but excluding wagering on fantasy sports and horse racing. The Leach bill puts a greater emphasis on enforcement.

These bills are attempts to undermine the uniquely unrestricted character of the Internet, which, unlike a brick and mortar casino, defies strict regulation. Poker can — and should — be regarded as a contest of skill the way that wagering on a horse race, for instance, cannot.

Of the 70 million Americans who play poker, 23 million play it online, wagering some $5 billion at Web sites located outside of U.S. jurisdiction. As Internet gaming is not explicitly legal, most companies that run these sites are located offshore to avoid what would certainly be lengthy and expensive court cases to determine the legality. Revenue from Internet poker has grown tenfold in three years, from $400 million in 2003 to a projected $4 billion this year. Declaring Internet poker illegal is not a popular move: A March survey reported that 66 percent of those asked said that the government should not be regulating American’s gambling behavior online, and more than 74 percent rejected the idea of government regulation of Internet poker.

Both the Goodlatte and Leach bills target internet providers and financial institutions rather than poker players themselves. Deputizing a bank with the responsibility of closely monitoring its customers’ credit-card activity and blocking fund transfers, as these bills would do, constitutes an undue burden on financial institutions and an impingement on customers’ reasonable expectations of privacy. And this regulation would be fairly easy to sidestep through the use of foreign banks — something that should not appeal to Mr. Goodlatte, who has cited the drain of offshore gambling on the U.S. economy. Internet providers would be banned from allowing hyperlinks to designated sites.

Not permitting online a game that is, in fact, legal in many states seems an unnecessary swipe against the freedom of the Internet.

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