Be­ware over­reg­u­la­tion of on­line gam­ing

The Signal - - OPINION - Peter ROFF

In Amer­ica, gam­ing is a very se­ri­ous busi­ness. It’s made a lot of peo­ple very wealthy and pro­vided quite a few states with new sources of rev­enue that up to now have helped keep bud­gets bal­anced.

It wasn’t al­ways that way. Lotteries, for in­stance, used to be il­le­gal and the prov­ince of or­ga­nized crime. Now that they’re state run they’re bring­ing in big bucks to fund schools and roads and other worth­while projects. They’ve be­come a form of vol­un­tary tax­a­tion. If you don’t play then you don’t have to pay.

Gam­ing is also big on the in­ter­net – as long as you play on sites over­seas where con­sumer pro­tec­tions are slight if not to­tally ab­sent. More and more, though, states are try­ing to open things up.

New Jersey, Delaware, and Ne­vada have on­line gam­ing le­gal for peo­ple who live there. Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia may soon fol­low. And in Ge­or­gia and Illi­nois you can buy lot­tery tick­ets on­line.

Th­ese de­vel­op­ments don’t sit well with gam­ing ty­coons like Shel­don Adel­son, the multi-bil­lion­aire whose Sands Cor­po­ra­tion owns casi­nos all over the world. He’s push­ing to keep on­line wa­ger­ing un­der fed­eral con­trol to block in­di­vid­ual states from al­low­ing it.

Let­ting states le­gal­ize on­line bet­ting threat­ens his em­pire, as does the on­line sale of lot­tery tick­ets. He wants Congress to ex­pand the Fed­eral Wire Act of 1961 in a way that would im­pose a per­ma­nent fed­eral ban on on­line gam­ing.

The leg­is­la­tion he re­port­edly backs, The Restora­tion of Amer­ica’s Wire Act or “RAWA,” would im­pose such a ban while si­mul­ta­ne­ously grant­ing a broad ex­emp­tion to a num­ber of ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing daily fan­tasy sports, in which he does not par­tic­i­pate.

Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can Rep. Char­lie Dent, who just an­nounced he’d not be seek­ing an­other term in Congress, has in­ti­mated he’ll try to at­tach RAWA to a must-pass spend­ing bill or get the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice to im­pose it by reg­u­la­tory fiat.

Either way, re­gard­less of any merit there may be in pre­vent­ing states from le­gal­iz­ing on­line wa­ger­ing, what he’s propos­ing to do smacks of crony­ism and would be an anti-com­pet­i­tive over­reach of fed­eral power.

If Adel­son or any other casino owner is con­cerned about los­ing mar­ket share to on­line bet­ting par­lors, then he needs to make his op­er­a­tions more at­trac­tive to the con­sumer. Granted, there’s plenty of money to go around.

We’re not talk­ing about busi­nesses that op­er­ate on a nar­row mar­gin. Nonethe­less, the prin­ci­ple that in a free mar­ket sys­tem in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions should be al­lowed to have the abil­ity to com­pete with one an­other is vi­tally im­por­tant and must be de­fended.

More­over, RAWA is be­ing mar­keted by some as a way to deal with the prob­lem of gam­bling ad­dic­tion which, sup­port­ers say, could be made worse if you can bet from your com­puter at home.

That sounds plau­si­ble save for three im­por­tant caveats: 1) the pro­posal ex­empts cer­tain kinds of ac­tiv­i­ties like fan­tasy sports in which wa­ger­ing can play a part but in which Adel­son has no per­sonal stake; 2) there are plenty of other av­enues, many of them al­ready il­le­gal, through which ad­dicts can and do en­ter­tain their ad­dic­tion; and 3) You al­ready can bet from home on the com­puter but only on sites lo­cated on servers out­side the United States.

Gam­ing is al­ready among Amer­ica’s most reg­u­lated in­dus­tries. The reg­u­la­tory author­i­ties who over­see it are state based, not fed­eral, a sen­si­ble ap­proach that has worked well for more than a cen­tury. There’s re­ally no rea­son to make a change like the one RAWA an­tic­i­pates now or at any time in the fu­ture.

If an in­di­vid­ual state opts to make the on­line sale of its lot­tery tick­ets le­gal, re­ally, what busi­ness is it of Wash­ing­ton’s? The nanny-state ar­gu­ments be­ing made by those lob­by­ing for fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion look more like cover for one man’s ef­fort to pro­tect his mar­ket share than com­pelling state in­ter­est.

Fed­eral and state pol­i­cy­mak­ers alike should be look­ing for ways to keep cy­berspace free from as much reg­u­la­tion as pos­si­ble. They must leave room for cre­ative in­di­vid­u­als to in­no­vate. What they’ve done up to now has kept the U.S. econ­omy go­ing dur­ing the most dis­mal re­cov­ery since the end of the World War II.

As the in­ter­net grows, so does the na­tion’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. Set­ting the kind of prece­dent RAWA would for fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion in com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties con­ducted over the in­ter­net could just be the be­gin­ning of the end of ev­ery­thing.

Copy­right 2017 Peter Roff. Dis­trib­uted ex­clu­sively by Ca­gle Car­toons news­pa­per syn­di­cate. Roff is a for­mer se­nior po­lit­i­cal writer for UPI and a well-known com­men­ta­tor based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Email him at Peter.Roff@Ver­i­zon.net.

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