William Jackson | CyberEye: Making the world safe from Internet gambling

William Jackson

Now that Congress has tackled the spam problem with the Can-Spam Act, it has turned its attention to the scourge of Internet gambling.

According to the Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act, a bet is a bet, whether you're doing it in front of your computer or at a card table. So it attempts to cut off the flow of funds to online gambling operations by outlawing the use of credit cards or any other means of fund transfers for paying off bets or collecting winnings.

So what happened when President Bush signed the bill into law in October? There was a spike in traffic to Internet gambling sites, said Dan Nadir, vice president of product strategy for ScanSafe Inc. of San Mateo, Calif.

'Actually, we saw two spikes,' said Nadir.

ScanSafe is a Web security firm that monitors 6 billion page requests for its customers each month. The first spike in gambling site traffic was a short burst immediately after the bill became law.

"The two biggest questions we face in trying to legislate online behavior: The first is, can we do it? The second is, should we do it?"

'We think that most of that was people checking to see if their accounts were still active,' Nadir said. That lasted about a week. The bigger spike correlated with the first day of the 2006 World Series and was not unexpected. 'We see increases in traffic whenever there are big sporting events.'

We can't expect any positive results from the anti-Internet gambling law too quickly. It gives the Federal Reserve until July to come up with rules for blocking payments. Trouble is, it does not say how those rules are supposed to work. The legislation specifies only that there should be 'policies and procedures' to identify and block the prohibited transactions. How is that supposed to work?

It would be simple enough for a bank to block a credit card payment to Joe's House of Illegal Gambling. But a really savvy operator is unlikely to be that helpful. Known gaming operations and their agents can be identified and cut off, but it is hard to see how offshore accounts with third parties and middlemen who handle payments to gambling sites can be effectively blocked.

This highlights the two biggest questions we face in trying to legislate online behavior: The first is, can we do it? The second is, should we do it?

The Can-Spam Act has not stopped spamming, of course. By various estimates, spam now accounts for from 70 percent to 90 percent of e-mail traffic. But that flawed law at least provided a tool for the prosecution of bad guys once they have been identified. In the end, the problem of spam will be solved'if it can be solved'by a combination of technology and education.

The gambling law does not really address an online problem, but instead targets a type of behavior that legislators have deemed unacceptable. These behaviors, whether they involve dirty pictures or gambling, are not likely to be controlled either by technology or legislation.

There are real Internet issues that need to be addressed, including a transition to IPv6, providing adequate security so that the Internet can effectively contribute to a participatory democracy, and the question of net neutrality. Given the amount of work yet to be done on these and other issues, setting your bank to be a nanny overseeing your online behavior hardly seems like a productive use of either the banks' resources or Congress' time.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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