A bill that would overturn the federal ban on internet gambling has some educators wondering how minors, including students using school computers, would be prevented from logging onto the betting sites from home and during school time.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced a bill in early May that would require internet gambling providers to be licensed by the Treasury Department and regulated to protect children and ensure the games are fair. The department would review criminal and credit histories as well as financial statements as part of the application process.
Some parents and teachers, however, are worried the bill might allow increasingly tech-savvy children–many of whom have access to their own credit or debit cards–to be sucked into the online betting world.
Opponents of online gambling approved what amounts to a ban in 2006 as part of an unrelated port security bill. Under that legislation, financial institutions were prohibited from accepting payments from credit cards, checks, or electronic fund transfers to settle online wagers.
The Bush administration moved in its final weeks to finish regulations enforcing the prohibition, and those regulations are set to go into effect Dec. 1. Frank also introduced a second bill to delay compliance with the regulations for another year.
At least half of the $16 billion internet gambling industry, which is largely hosted on overseas sites, is estimated to be fueled by U.S. bettors. European online gambling firms were hit hard after the 2006 ban, and Frank’s bill is expected to ease tensions between U.S. and European regulators over the issue.
Problem gambling among college students reportedly is more than double that of the general population, with an estimated 3 percent to 4 percent of college student gamblers developing into problem gamblers. College students have easy access to credit cards and online gambling opportunities, with more than 2,000 betting web sites available.
"Most people can gamble responsibly and never develop a problem. For some, gambling develops into a problem for which they have little to no control," says Mary Lay, project manager of the Indiana Problem Gambling Awareness Program, which is part of Indiana University’s Indiana Prevention Resource Center.
"Problem gambling can lead to financial devastation, crime, and poor physical and mental health–including an increased risk of substance abuse, depression, and suicide."
Lay said problem gambling among college students is characterized by behaviors that include a drop in grades, inability to stay awake in class from late nights of gambling, and using tuition, scholarship, or book money to pay gambling debts.
A December 2007 study by researchers at the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that gambling activity is widespread among U.S. adolescents and young adults ages 14 through 21.
Results showed problem gambling occurring at a rate of 2.1 percent among young people ages 14 to 21, a percentage that researchers said projected to approximately 750,000 young problem gamblers nationwide at the time of the survey. "Problem gambling" was described as gambling with three or more negative consequences in one year (for example, gambling more than intended or stealing money to gamble).
In addition, 11 percent of the youth surveyed gambled twice per week or more, a rate researchers described as frequent gambling. Sixty-eight percent of the youth interviewed reported that they had gambled at least once in the past year.
"In a society where young people are increasingly exposed to gambling influences, there is cause for concern," said John W. Welte, principal investigator on the study.
The Safe and Secure Internet Gambling Initiative says the internet and technology offer many ways to ensure that children are unable to gain access to such gambling sites.
Safety controls that reportedly have worked in blocking minors from gambling online in the U.K. include:
• When registering at a gambling site, the user is required to provide a range of personal information and is asked a series of detailed questions, some which are derived from their credit history.
• This information is then run through existing third-party systems, such as databases from the Social Security Administration and Departments of Motor Vehicles, to confirm that the data being provided are accurate.
• Internet gambling operators also can request physical copies of identification documents, such as a utility bill or driver’s license, for verification upon registering.
The organization offers tips for adults to prevent children’s access to gambling web sites, some of which might be applied to schools:
• Use child protection software to block gambling sites.
• Do not leave the computer unattended if an adult is logged onto an internet gambling site.
• Do not share your credit card or bank account details with your children.
• Do not leave the "Save Password" option enabled on your computer or with any internet gambling site.
• Create separate profiles for children on computers, so that when they log in they cannot access adult information.
No similar bill has been proposed in the Senate as of press time, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he opposes internet gambling, dimming prospects for Frank’s legislation.
Rep. Shelley Berkely, D-Nev., whose district includes Las Vegas, voiced support for Frank’s bill. She previously sponsored legislation that would require a study of online gambling.
"What we have now is an unworkable law passed by those opposed to all gaming, whether it’s done by adults in Las Vegas or on the internet," Berkely said. "So there is no question we must act to correct the problems caused by this failed crusade to ban internet gaming."
Former New York Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato chairs the Poker Players Alliance, which says it will spend $3 million lobbying in this session of Congress to try to overturn the internet gambling ban.
Among those in the other corner is the National Football League, which says gambling threatens the integrity of its games and has made preserving the internet ban a priority. Frank’s bill contains a provision that tries to address those concerns by continuing a general prohibition on sports gambling online.
Minnesota officials are trying a novel tactic to block online gambling sites using a federal law that enables restrictions on phone calls used for wagering.
The state’s Department of Public Safety said it had asked 11 internet service providers to block access to 200 online gambling sites.
The state is citing a federal law that requires "common carriers," a term that mainly applies to phone companies, to comply with requests that they block telecommunications services used for gambling.
But internet service providers are not common carriers, meaning it’s unlikely that a court would compel an ISP to comply with Minnesota’s request, said John Morris, general counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.
Morris also noted that the law appears to apply to phone companies directly doing business with bet-takers. But American restrictions on online gambling have already forced gambling sites overseas, where U.S. ISPs have no direct links to them.
"I think this is a very problematic and significant misreading of the statute," Morris said.
In a similar case, Pennsylvania briefly imposed requirements for ISPs to block child pornography sites. A federal court struck down the law in 2004 because the filters also blocked legitimate sites and affected internet subscribers outside the state.
John Willems, director of the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division of Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety, said that because telecommunications companies now provide more than just phone service, the requests "seem to be a reasonable application of the law."
"We’ll see how the conversation unfolds from there," he said.