Jon Bruning: There's no place for online gambling in America

If the predatory online gambling industry — as well as President Obama’s Justice Department — had its way, the device on which you are reading this column would be transformed into a virtual casino for minors and problem gamblers all over this country. With a single click, online operators offer kids and addicts easy access on a 24/7 basis without effective age verification or self-exclusion measures.

Until earlier this year, the United States appeared bound to follow the United Kingdom down a perilous path as a result of an Obama-era error. In 2011, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a defective opinion which claimed that the Federal Wire Act’s strong prohibitions against online gambling applied only to sports betting. This sharp departure from the department’s decades-long interpretation of the statute — which led a handful of states to unlawfully sanction online gambling — even “stunned” high-ranking Obama appointees.

Indeed, “the Department secured at least seventeen Wire Act convictions between Fiscal Years 2005 and 2011 that involved non-sports betting.” DOJ’s view was — and had been for some time — “that all forms of Internet gambling, including sports wagering, casino games and card games, are illegal under Federal law.” As the former attorney general of Nebraska, I therefore applaud the recent decision to correct OLC’s 2011 mistake.

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Particularly important to me as a father, I’m grateful for DOJ’s decision to protect the American children and problem gamblers most prone to what is a “hidden epidemic” in the U.K. Now the center of the online gambling scourge, the U.K. has become the world’s largest regulated online gambling market. Currently, more than half of British 16-year-olds have gambling apps on their phones, while online casinos obtain more than half of their profits from problem gamblers.

Explosive news reports published around the same time as the DOJ decision help explain how these staggering statistics are possible. Late last fall, The Times of London detailed how, in neighboring Ireland, gambling websites allow kids to "open online accounts without checking their age" as "most companies do not require proof of age to open an account." As a result, "a false date of birth can be put in without a problem."

Unfortunately, the predatory practices exploited by operators in the world’s largest iGaming market mirror the malfeasance of those in our own country’s largest iGaming market.

Meanwhile, on the eve of when DOJ issued its opinion, BBC News exposed the ease with which gamblers who are banned can bypass GamStop — the self-exclusion system put in place by online casinos. Per BBC’s investigation, it is “very easy” for those with an iGaming problem to “open a new account and continue gambling, even while banned” simply by using a different email address or by changing a single letter in their name.

Additionally, The Telegraph discovered that some games "can be downloaded by children as young as three on Android smartphones, regardless of parental settings." A study released by London’s Goldsmiths University found that eight in 10 kids remember seeing online gambling ads on television, and the Royal Society for Public Health determined that online betting is a "dangerous new problem" for the next generation. As a reminder, some of the biggest online casinos have been busted preying on — and profiting off of — little kids throughout the years with schemes involving cartoon characters, free candy, and games based on fairytales.

The tactics online casinos exploit to target addicts, meanwhile, are just as vile. As BBC News reported following January’s decision, “the marketing messages never stopped” for a police officer and problem gambler who “repeatedly asked to be excluded from online gambling sites but found it all too easy to set up new accounts.” And just this month, the Guardian reported details on the case of one website where a game "goaded" an addict to gamble £20,000 by sending him "marketing emails as often as four times in a day."

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Unfortunately, the predatory practices exploited by operators in the world’s largest iGaming market mirror the malfeasance of those in our own country’s largest iGaming market — where ads for online casinos have been spotted on children’s websites, as well as on webpages for problem gamblers. And just like in the U.K., online casinos in New Jersey are under fire for their verification failures. Weeks after an affiliate of the state’s largest online casino was sanctioned “for allowing underage gamblers to place bets for more than a year,” another report highlighted how a California man was able to circumvent the system and gamble online from across the country.

As is evident from the industry’s lack of concern for kids and addicts — along with its inability to implement sufficient verification systems to protect them — online gambling poses an intrinsic danger to society. Equally as clear amid the industry’s determination to turn every American child’s smartphone into a casino, DOJ’s reversal of the OLC’s warped 2011 Wire Act opinion was needed to again align our government’s position with the history of the statute — as well as to protect the future of those most at risk.