Internet Gaming Rules Face Long Odds

(By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

It's not easy making rules for a U.S. law intended to deter illegal Internet gambling by choking off the flow of funds to offshore sites. That's because no one seems to agree on what the law covers.

Officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve found that out after sifting through more than 200 comments from banks, gamblers, church groups and members of Congress on recommendations for the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The basic sentiment was that their Oct. 4 proposal, which depends on financial institution enforcement, won't work.

The outcome will affect 23 million online gamblers, some 2,500 Internet sites and the growth of an industry with an estimated $15 billion in annual global revenue. The law bars financial institutions from processing payments involving Internet gambling -- with the notable exceptions of Indian gaming, state gaming and horse racing.

"If the federal agencies themselves cannot agree on the law, what hope is there that banks can resolve these confounding legal issues?" the American Bankers Association said in commenting on a conflict between the Treasury and Justice departments on the legality of betting on horses.

The Washington trade group said the suggested rules are more likely to catch its members in a compliance trap than stop profits from illegal gambling from escaping offshore.

The proposal says generally that it covers the making of bets on the Internet that already are illegal under state or federal law. It just doesn't spell out those games of chance.

Banks and other financial institutions would have to make a reasonable effort to stop payments to Internet gambling sites through credit cards, checks or electronic funds transfer.

The final rule is overdue, as regulators review the flood of comments.

"This is an issue that there is so much interest in that we don't want to rush," said Jennifer Zuccarelli, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department. "We are just trying to hear from everyone."

There are a variety of complaints. Gamblers point to what they see as hypocrisy in the proposal. Why hamper Internet gambling, they argue, when states enthusiastically license casinos, and taking long odds on a state lottery ticket is perfectly legal?

Former senator Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican representing the Poker Players Alliance in Washington, told the agencies that its constituency should not even be included because poker is a game of skill, not chance.

"What is legal now?" Joseph Kelly, a professor of business law at the State University of New York College at Buffalo and an expert in online gambling, said in an interview. "God only knows."


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