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Robert MacMillan's Random Access

Online Bracketeering

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; 10:02 AM

It's a shame there are no statistics out there that can reveal how many reams of paper and gallons of ink Capitol Hill staffers sacrifice to the altar of bracketology every March. It wouldn't establish a direct connection to Congress's inability to ban Internet gambling, but it sure would be interesting nonetheless.

OK, OK, I'm not being serious when I make that suggestion, but another year of "March Madness" does more than ever to highlight the fact that using the Internet to gamble -- already technically illegal under a 1961 law, 13 years before people even used the term "Internet" -- remains an easy pastime for anyone who wants to press their luck.

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Random Access is a daily column by Robert MacMillan that explores the latest trends in technology and how they are changing daily life.

Random Access won't tell you why a new gizmo will revolutionize your ad server. It will tell you about episodes from daily life -- exasperated waiters who use blogs to vent about their customers, whole runs of salmon injected with nanoparticles for individual tracking in Norwegian fjords and the growing number of DJs who are sick of being sidelined in favor of iPods. (Only one of these stories is fake.)

Most of what you see will be culled from news sources and blogs from around the world, though we will supplement Random Access with original files on the novel, unusual, bizarre and reactionary happenings in the world of technology and society.

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The online gambling industry brings in an estimated $3.7 billion to $10 billion a year for Internet operations, and represents a small but growing portion of the $80 billion illegal sports-gambling machine in the United States. American Internet users gamble on approximately 2,000 Web sites, according to a San Jose Mercury News article earlier this week. The story noted: "Moments after CBS announces the NCAA Tournament brackets, the real madness begins." As 28 million Americans drop a few clams each into their office pools, dial-up connections and broadband networks start buzzing with wagering activity: "In exotic locales such as Antigua and Costa Rica, hard drives spin and phones ring as Web sites process transaction after transaction."

In Indianapolis, all the while, NCAA officials try to remind America why 10 percent of the population is doing something not just illegal, but immoral. The association's director of gambling activities, Bill Saum, told the Merc "he worries that gambling jeopardizes the integrity of the game and puts student-athletes at risk."

(The NCAA posts all sorts of legal, if not lucrative, ways to enjoy the men's and women's tournaments, including photos, videos and other freebies. washingtonpost.com and most other major online media feature fun brackets for entertainment purposes only. Ahem.)

Internet gambling is barely a decade old, but it technically violates the 1961 Wire Act, which forbids using the nation's communications network for gambling purposes. Nevertheless, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and others have tried -- and come really, really (really!) close -- but failed to get bills to the White House that would specifically outlaw online betting. Credit card companies often won't let their customers pay up at online gambling sites, but the operators now use third parties to take the money straight from the bettors' bank accounts.

Just like the offline world, the Internet's prime sports-betting events are the Super Bowl and March Madness, the Merc explained. Why? "It's the convenience," said Mark Balestra, vice president of publishing for the River City Group, an industry observer, told the paper. "Serious sports bettors are not as likely to be interested in the entertainment that casinos offer. They just want the best price they can get."

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a short piece querying recovering compulsive gamblers about using the Internet to bet: "In Gamblers Anonymous groups throughout the country, and in Fort Worth/Dallas, new members come in every week, and many of them have had their addiction fueled by online sports gambling. 'The access is so easy,' said Chris, a member of the Fort Worth chapter. 'When I was gambling with a bookie it was more difficult, and somewhat shameful. ... But online, I justified to myself that it was OK. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to do it. The mere fact that it was available allowed me to believe it was all right.'"

Dogs Playing Poker? That's Crazy!

North Dakota's legislature is reviewing a bill that could legalize Internet poker, one of the most popular online gambling activities. The advantage? See USA Today: "'No one wants tax increases. This is a legitimate revenue maker,' says [Fargo] Rep. Jim Kasper. ... He introduced legislation that would allow Internet poker sites to operate inside the state. It has passed the House. Kasper says legalized Internet poker could bring in millions through taxes and fees. North Dakota's constitution would have to be amended, he says." USA Today also reported that the state attorney general's office got a letter from that pesky Justice Department reminding Bismarck that online gambling is ILLEGAL.

The DOJ must be using up a fair amount of ink in its letter-writing department. South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed a bill that would allow people to use e-mail and the telephone to bet on horse- and dog-racing in other states. "Existing law prohibits South Dakota businesses from starting Internet gambling operations. Violators can be punished for each bet on the Internet. The first illegal bet can bring a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a $2,000 fine. All other bets can bring up to five years and $5,000," the Associated Press reported. "The new law includes a tax of 0.25 percent on Internet or telephone bets placed on horse and dog races in other states. The revenue will support the operation of horse racing tracks at Aberdeen and Fort Pierre and help those who raise racehorses in South Dakota."


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