- - Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On Monday night, the Department of Justice (DOJ) restored the long-standing federal prohibition on all forms of Internet gambling. Reports of this action led free-lance writer David Hogberg to write a misguided op-ed in these pages.

Originally implemented in 1961 to cut off the chief funding source for organized crime, the Wire Act prohibits all forms of gambling activity involving interstate telecommunications — including, in DOJ’s own words, “sports wagering, casino games and card games” over the Internet. After all, as DOJ has consistently argued — and federal courts have consistently determined — the Internet is an inherently interstate technology.

A departure from the department’s previous position that “all forms of Internet gambling are illegal under Federal law” — which was guided by a half-century’s worth of Wire Act interpretation — the 2011 Office of Legal Counsel Opinion ultimately arrived at an erroneous conclusion: The legislation’s scope is limited to sports betting.

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The 2011 opinion, for example, cites the following testimony of Assistant Attorney General Herbert Miller from a 1961 hearing: “This bill, of course, would not cover [the numbers racket (lotteries)] because it is limited to sporting events or contests.” But the bill language about which Mr. Miller was testifying, however, never became law. Instead, the entire provision was rewritten and expanded with broader text to address concerns that the initial version did not include non-sports wagers.

The opinion then used tortured logic predicated on the notion that Congress intended to exempt lotteries from the Wire Act — when, in fact, lotteries were the most lucrative form of gambling for the mob. Based on this logic, the opinion created a loophole to accommodate the online casinos’ push to transform Americans’ cellphones into mobile slot machines.

Just as the mob-run lotteries preyed on our most vulnerable in 1961, so too does the predatory online gambling industry pose a serious threat to our children’s future. As proof, one need only look to the United Kingdom, “the world’s largest regulated online gambling market,” where online gambling is on more than half of all 16-year-olds’ smartphones and more than half of the industry’s profit is from problem gamblers.

Additionally, a recent U.K. Gambling Commission study found “the number of children classed as having a gambling problem has quadrupled to more than 50,000 in just two years.” Overall, “450,000 children aged 11 to 16 bet regularly, more than those who have taken drugs, smoked or drunk alcohol.” But online casinos want more revenue and are stooping to shamefully low lengths to get it. Online casinos are bombarding children and problem gamblers with advertisements, expropriating cartoon characters to turn kids into customers, and placing links to their gambling platforms on soccer clubs’ junior fan webpages.

The U.K.’s online gambling industry — and the predatory practices it consistently employs — should serve as a worrisome warning for our country.

After the state greenlighted the industry, for example, New Jersey’s licensed online operators — who recently gloated about attracting “new, younger customers” — have already been caught copying some of the worst schemes of their overseas counterparts. Last year, ads for some of these operators were spotted on websites tailored specifically to children and gambling addicts seeking help. In contrast to the brick-and-mortar casino ads, promotions for online casinos — which often include offers for “free” bets — put kids a single click away from gambling instantly at home or school.

But don’t just take my word for it — here is how a 13-year-old British boy who “got hooked after seeing adverts for betting websites” describes the ease with which he was able to lose more than $100,000 while gambling on his cell phone: “It was just far too easy. I just had to put in dad’s name, address, date of birth and card details and checked a box saying I was 18 — it took literally seconds to register and start gambling.”

To make the “far too easy” activity even easier for children, the top hit on a web search on how to login to the world’s largest online gambling company reveals that there is a dedicated step-by-step tutorial video on YouTube “for only kids” categorized under “education.” As Bet365 looks to make its mark in the United States, it is worth noting the company’s many controversies — from the toddler who cost his father north of $60,000 and an autistic 11-year-old who unknowingly lost $42,000 on his grandfather’s account, to the more than 6-in-10 British teens who said iGaming ads made gambling “look fun” — should serve as a cautionary tale against the industry as a whole.

By reversing the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2011 Opinion, DOJ is reasserting the federal government’s central role in American gambling policy, returning lawmaking authority to Congress, and setting the table for the coming debate over sports betting. Equally as important, by correcting the OLC’s 2011 mistake — a defective opinion that ignored congressional intent — DOJ is protecting kids and addicts before the predatory online gambling industry gets the chance to target even more of our most vulnerable.

• Jon Bruning, a former Nebraska attorney general and president of the National Association of Attorneys General, is managing partner of Bruning Law Group and counsel to the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.

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