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Pimps, drug dealers and a tough road ahead for online gambling regulation

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Up to the challenge? Geoff Freeman, new head of the American Gaming Association, is going to have his hands full with Congress.

A federal government shutdown loomed as the Global Gaming Expo got under way in Las Vegas late last month, so what the new head of the American Gaming Association said at his first press conference sounded about right. It isn’t that Congress dislikes the gambling industry, Geoff Freeman insisted, but that Congress “isn’t capable of getting anything done.”

The second part is obviously true. Congress can’t handle its most basic tasks. How could anyone expect those clowns to address something as complex as the increasingly unwieldy situation of state-by-state Internet gambling regulations?

Still, Freeman’s only half right, as he will discover as he settles into his new gig. Even if Congress were somewhat functional, the folks on the Hill wouldn’t be capable of a level-headed discussion of the matter. Despite the fact that 96 of 100 U.S. senators represent states with legal gambling, that there’s a casino within a three-hour drive of every major city in the lower 48 and that Americans spend five times as much on slots as on movie tickets, the topic still gives a surprising array of Beltway politicians the heebie-jeebies. You know how weird Carson City pols get whenever anything brothel-related enters the Nevada Legislature’s orbit? That’s how Congress feels about gambling.

Don’t believe me? Then you missed the midsummer hearings on Internet gambling held by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance. It was a stunning bit of evidence that despite apparent gains in public esteem for the casino biz in recent decades, scratch the surface and real disdain gushes forth.

The hearings’ aim, as conceived by Chairwoman Claire McCaskill, Democrat from Missouri, and ranking member Dean Heller, Nevada’s GOP senator, was to push for a federal law to regulate online wagering. The head of the Fraternal Order of Police described the impossible task facing local and state cops who try to stop illegal offshore online casino activity and any money laundering connected to it. Some guy hawked fancy technology to geolocate and biometrically confirm whether an online gambler is who and where he claims.

All of that’s fine. Money laundering and underage play are serious issues. But then it got real.

Heller—who received more casino campaign cash than anyone in that room—offered a weird spiel about a friend whose son gambled his tuition away online. Gambling, he illustrated, is addictive and dangerous. Heller never implied the illegal site scammed the kid, only that its existence was costly. Thus, a man whose state allows slots in 7-Elevens groused about the impact of ubiquitous, easily accessible gambling.

With that, the floodgates flew open for his colleagues to reveal their truest, bipartisan angst about online wagering specifically but, really, gambling in general. GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire attributed every and any social ill to these offshore villains and their ill-gotten cash. “We can have organized crime do it and we can also have terrorist organizations do it,” she claimed. There were shout-outs to drug dealers and pimps, too.

And it’s not just the right-wing anti-fun fringe. Moments later, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut saw Ayotte and raised her with jitters over whether casinos can protect all that personal data they get to collect online, somehow finding a way to conclude: “And so the two worlds merge—pornography and online casinos.”

When all of these bad things are being muttered in connection with a part of your industry, you’re having a catastrophic day in Washington. It hardly matters they were largely agonizing specifically over online gambling; they never expressed this sort of fear over online shopping, mortgage lending or dating. These senators went where they did because, to them, the casino business is still only modestly removed from the nefarious underworld. Toss in the Internet and it’s as disreputable as ever.

Blumenthal, whose state boasts the East Coast’s most profitable casino, Foxwoods, hammered nails in the coffin of any hopes the American Gaming Association or Heller had when he declared that he “doesn’t think [online gambling] can even be regulated.”

If not, then what? What’s the alternative to regulation if we’re talking about the need to combat a haven for drug cartels, prostitution kingpins, human traffickers, Al Qaeda, identity thieves, pornographers and mobsters?

There’s only one logical answer: Ban it.

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and USA Today, among many other outlets.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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