Last week, the Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division sent letters to 11 ISPs in the state asking them to block access to 200 online gambling website, citing a federal wire transfer law of dubious applicability to the Internet and the state’s ability to force ISPs to take this action. This is a terrible idea in so many ways it’s hard to count.
First, a bit of disclosure: I like playing poker. I’ve played poker both in real live ring games and online. I take issue with online poker being lumped in with other forms of “gambling”. Gambling at a casino means making a bet against the house, which has an edge that varies from the very small to the outrageously huge. There is little, if any, skill involved, and over the long run you are going to lose your money. Poker, on the other hand, does not pit a person against the house and its daunting advantage. Instead, it pits player against player, and the money you win comes directly from other people when you outmaneuver them. It is certainly possible to make a living by playing poker; skill is all that counts, the cards you get evening out for everybody in the long run. Online or in real life, the provider of the poker arena (the online software or the chips, dealer, table, cards, etc. in real life) just get a slice of the action for providing the service.
So if there’s any such thing as a truly “victimless crime”, online poker, where participants willingly win and lose their own money amongst themselves, has to be it. Wasting resources going after this activity seems like a case of misplaced priorities. However, that’s hardly the sole reason this is a bad move. More frightening is the state attempting to get ISPs to block whatever they believe to be “objectionable content” without demonstrating a clear public need for such a block. This proposal came out of the blue with no public input; surely a measure as drastic as blocking access to a large category of websites deserves some debate among the people.
Barney Frank, the Democrat from Massachusetts is proposing that the ban on online gambling be modified to undo the draconian change that was passed into law in 2006 almost completely under the radar (under a Republican Congress, to boot); I think such a change is long overdue. Should online gambling be regulated? Absolutely. But outright bans and witch hunts don’t accomplish much.