Monday, August 25, 1997; Page A18
MOVING AN OLD problem to a new setting can help clarify issues and sharpen debate. With any luck the proposal by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to impose a federal ban on Internet gambling will do just that for issues raised by the explosive growth of legalized gambling that isn't conducted in cyberspace. The bill, which will come before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, seeks to extend bans on interstate gambling to block the use of the Internet for betting.
Online gambling, of course, wakes all the specters of addiction and corruption that lead people to oppose the entry of gambling into their communities. The ability to gamble in the privacy of one's home at all hours of the day opens up previously unthinkable vistas for the squandering of money, while making it even more difficult than it is in other venues to regulate fly-by-night outfits. Most online gambling concerns so far require players to make a minimum deposit in an account opened for the purpose, and some players who thought they had "won" jackpots have reported considerable difficulty in getting paid.
If gambling by Internet is allowed, communities will suffer significant loss of local autonomy. Unlike casinos or slot palaces, though, Internet gambling isn't likely to have much effect on the surrounding neighborhood, much as Internet-borne pornography doesn't create red-light districts. Online gambling also sidesteps another big reason for opposing gambling: governments taking a hand in luring people into the games of chance -- whether directly, via state lotteries that take money disproportionately from the less wealthy, or indirectly, by agreeing to the blandishments of lobbyists who promise the advent of gambling will bring quick money for everyone's favorite causes.
Internet gambling, by contrast, might remain a private vice with no government money in it -- if anything, it might suck money from the state-funded lotteries. And that raises the question of how far Americans think government should go in regulating people's conduct in the privacy of their homes.
Online gambling is on the list of issues set to be examined by the president's commission on gambling. But that commission remains on a slow track, while the growth of the online gambling industry is, to say the least, brisk. An equally brisk debate on the Senate bill would be a good way to sort out what people really object to about gambling and what -- short of a highly unlikely general prohibition -- are the proper places to focus those objections.
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