Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Online Gambling in the U. S.: Don't Bet On It

If you log on to BetOnSports.com today, and your Internet address identifies you as living in the U. S., all you will see besides their colorful logo is the following message:

IN LIGHT OF COURT PAPERS FILED IN THE UNITED STATES, THE COMPANY HAS TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED THIS FACILITY PENDING ITS ABILITY TO ASSESS ITS FULL POSITION. DURING THIS PERIOD NO FINANCIAL OR WAGERING TRANSACTIONS CAN BE EXECUTED. FURTHER INFORMATION WILL BE POSTED ONCE THE COMPANY IS IN A POSITION TO DO SO.

The BETonSPORTS.com
customer support team

The reason for this is simple: A U. S. District Court in St. Louis has issued a restraining order against BetOnSports PLC, forbidding them to take any bets from U. S. residents. The reason for the court order is a civil case filed by the U. S. Department of Justice to stop the company's U. S. operations. On July 16, the CEO of BetOnSports, David Carruthers, a British citizen, was on his way from London to the company's online operations in Costa Rica by way of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Federal authorities arrested him at the airport. How you view all these goings-on depends on your view of gambling, the Internet, and what is right and wrong about both.

Engineering ethics often deals with the unexpected consequences of a new technology. Most of the time, the surprise comes not for purely technical or scientific reasons alone, but from the ways people find to use or misuse the new development. The designers of the Arpanet, an early predecessor of the Internet, were thinking in terms of Cold War national defense in 1969 when they put together a computer network that they hoped would withstand partial destruction in a nuclear war. I would be surprised to find that the thought of placing bets over their new medium of communication ever entered their minds. But as millions of ordinary people gained access to the Internet, that thought did occur to gamblers, bookies, and "gaming industry" professionals, who set up gambling websites, mostly outside the continental U. S. to avoid state and Federal laws against unauthorized games of chance. But now the Department of Justice seems to believe it can make a good case against one of the highest-volume online betting operations.

As a strong opponent of gambling in any organized form, I hope that Mr. Carruthers' recent experiences make other online gambling outfits think twice about continuing their U. S. operations. In my view, gambling approaches the perfect temptation, as defined by the demon Screwtape in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. The perfect temptation is to entice someone into a trap and give them nothing in return. And most of the time, that's exactly what gamblers get, on individual bets and in the long run. I think it is a shame that most U. S. states have corrupted themselves to the extent of conducting lotteries. Never mind that the profits so gained are used for good purposes, including education. Studies have shown that people with lower incomes spend a much larger portion of their income on lotteries and gambling than upper-income groups. So organized gambling robs from the poor and gives to the rich, the rich being either state governments or the wealthy owners and operators of casinos and online gambling companies.

Does my personal opinion about gambling make me think that we therefore ought to roll up the Internet and put it away, simply because it can be used for nefarious purposes? Not necessarily. A lot of bad things on the Internet are there simply because people have always been doing them, and people are now using the Internet a lot.

Gambling is a very old social problem. It became a popular recreation in China as much as 3500 years ago. The sage Confucius opposed the practice and several Chinese emperors tried to prohibit it, with mixed success. The fact that gambling has become an issue on the Internet is no more surprising than the fact that people occasionally tell lies in emails as well as in person.

What the Internet has done with gambling that is new is to internationalize it, making it much trickier for any single jurisdiction to enforce its laws or prosecute violators. When you had to fly to Las Vegas or Monaco to gamble in a big way, the volume was necessarily small, but now numerous gambling sites are just a click of the mouse away. Just as the development of radio broadcasting in the 1920s led to a whole new set of laws to regulate international broadcasting, which were (and are) both obeyed and violated to various degrees, the global nature of the Internet has challenged the sovereignty of nations in an unprecedented way.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, some countries such as China have chosen to spend a lot of effort to control their part of the Internet in various ways. I don't know what China's policy is toward Internet gambling, but the great firewall of China can probably block those sites as effectively as it blocks sites with the word "freedom." Such a restrictive system is unthinkable in this country, where the Internet acquired much of its egalitarian and democratic nature. But the Department of Justice seems to believe that other approaches such as restraining orders and arresting CEOs in airports can have the same effect.

What if you think there's nothing wrong with gambling, even after reading what I have to say about it? Well, if you are an engineer, I suppose you could join the technical support staff of BetOnSports.com without having your conscience bother you. But it seems to me that engineers have a special calling to make life better in some way, and not just one's own life, as in getting a high-paying job. After all, if your only criterion about a career is pay, you should go right out and start running drugs: the hourly rate can't be beat and no higher education is required. If you disagree with that idea, that means you have some moral feelings and intuitions about your career. The thing to do is not to ignore them, but ask yourself what they are, and why you have them. If you figure all this out and still think it's fine to work for an online gaming outfit, then go ahead. But just be careful about where your flights land.

Sources: A report on Carruthers' predicament was carried in the Aug. 1, 2006 online edition of the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/01/technology/01gamble.html. More information is at the Internet News Bureau site http://www.internetnews.com/ec-news/article.php/3622341. An interesting history of gambling in China by Desmond Lam is at http://www.urbino.net/articles.cfm?specificArticle=A%20Brief%20Chinese%20History%20of%20Gambling. The Maryland study of gambling is cited in a philosophical argument against state lotteries by Verna V. Gehring is at
http://www.publicpolicy.umd.edu/IPPP/Winter-Spring00/The_American_State_Lottery.htm.

1 comment:

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