Congress should tread extremely carefully before it even thinks about banning lawful activity on the Internet.
Congress is being pressed for a sweeping ban on Internet gaming. Whether you gamble or not — and whether you participate in Internet games or not — it is clear that the prohibition of Internet gaming is a bad idea for Americans.
There are many reasons why Congress should not ban Internet gaming, but three in particular stand out:
It would block common-sense consumer and online protections for the most vulnerable, including minors.
It would trample on state and individual rights.
It would put Congress in the position of banning technological innovations the public has already widely embraced.
First, a ban would allow an unsafe black market for Internet gaming to continue to thrive. By missing the opportunity to regulate a lawful market, Congress would be denying common-sense consumer protections for the estimated 1 million Americans that spend nearly $3 billion every year on illegal and unregulated gaming sites that lack important protections such as age verification and geolocation.
Modern technologies exist to block minors from playing, protect those with addictions and ensure games are fair. These technologies have already worked to protect consumers in Europe, Canada and the United States; where New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada are already implementing programs for responsible Internet gaming. Unlike the billion-dollar black market, these programs provide real consumer protections. A congressional ban on online gaming would ensure that millions of Americans are denied these very protections.
Not only do these black-market websites lack consumer protections, but the FBI and other law enforcement professionals say they present a serious risk for money laundering, identity theft and other criminal enterprises, including potential terrorism. Under a congressional ban, that billion-dollar black market for Internet gaming would continue to thrive, with no protections, no oversight and no regulation.
Furthermore, a congressional ban would prevent regulated Internet gaming programs from generating millions in revenue for local priorities such as schools, transportation or public health. It’s no surprise that states including California, Pennsylvania and New York are considering their own programs for responsible and regulated Internet gaming.
In addition to the states that currently permit Internet gaming, there are state lotteries across the nation offering online options in an effort to meet consumer demand. A congressional ban would stop them in their tracks, cutting off critical sources of state revenue.
Third, a ban would put Congress in the unenviable position of trying to legislate away specific activity on the Internet and popular technological advancements that the public has widely embraced.
Businesses cannot pretend the Internet and online demand do not exist. One need not look further than film, television and music to see that industries must evolve and keep pace with technological advances, or consumers will simply leave them behind. Even major retailers like Blockbuster, Tower Records and Borders learned hard lessons by not embracing online technologies, sending each into bankruptcy.
The lesson here is that it is impossible to stand in the way of the Internet; rather, we should embrace and shape these new technologies in ways that are safe for consumers. There is no question whether Americans are gaming online. More than a million are. Instead of trying to put the Internet back in a bottle, and ignoring technological and consumer demand, Congress should be focused on making it safe for all Americans.
The effort to ban Internet gaming is misguided but it also may draw attention to the real issue: How do we break up the billion-dollar black market to ensure consumer and online protections are in place for the millions of Americans who choose to play games online?
Mary Bono, a U.S. congresswoman from 1998 to 2013, was a member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.