Yesterday's online gambling banning notification from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Gaming Division has made mainstream media headlines throughout the world, and has predictably fired up almost immediate opposition from civil rights and Internet freedom groups.
Matt Werden, the Minnesota state director of the Poker Players Alliance, which has 21 000 of its million members resident in Minnesota, was first to condemn the move, releasing a statement which said: "This isn't simply a heavy-handed tactic by the government; this is a clear misrepresentation of federal law, as well as Minnesota law, used in an unprecedented way to try and censor the Internet. I don't know what U.S. Code they're reading, but it is not illegal to play this great American pastime online, and we're calling their bluff.
"The fact is, online poker is not illegal, it's not criminal, and it cannot be forcibly blocked by a state authority looking to score some political points. What are they going to do when this fails, ban poker books and burn our players at the stake?
"We see headlines like this coming from communist China but never expect that it could happen here in Minnesota.
"The good news is groups like the Poker Players Alliance are here to protect the rights of poker players and set the record straight when government reaches too far. But this is more than just protecting poker – this is about keeping the internet free of censorship and ensuring that law abiding citizens can enjoy a game of Texas Hold ‘Em in the comfort of their own home, whether it's online or with a group of friends.
"The PPA will take any action necessary to make sure our members and the general public are aware of these oppressive and illegal actions, and to make sure the game of poker – in all it's forms – is protected in the state of Minnesota."
Minnesota officials remained unrepentant, however, and seemingly convinced that it was illegal to gamble online in Minnesota. Alcohol and Gaming Division director John Willems told a Casino City reporter: "The statute we're citing is civil."
"We're not seeking to criminalize. We're not seeking to prevent Internet gambling sites from doing their business where it's lawful – we're just seeking to prevent them from doing it in Minnesota where it's unlawful. I'm only concerned about the state of Minnesota."
Speaking to Casino City staff (http://online.casinocity.com/news/news.cfm?ArticleId=84470) Willems said that his list of Internet gambling sites to be blocked did not include websites that merely promoted or advertised online gambling, as opposed to those that actively offered gambling facilities to Minnesota residents.
Asked about the motivation behind the unexpected initiative from his department, Willems admitted that there had not been a major public demand for this action, but that the move was "a natural evolution of Minnesota's belief that Internet gambling is illegal."
"Internet gambling is unlawful in Minnesota," Willems stressed. "So how do you deal with activity within the confines of our jurisdiction while understanding there's a global aspect to this?
"As the industry changed and phone companies became ISPs, and ISPs became phone companies it reached a point in time where we realized that a reasonable reading of the statute applied. Our goal is not to hurt the operators in their lawful operations. And the technology has grown to the point where it's a fairly straight forward process."
Casino City asked gaming attorney Clarke Walton for his take on the issue, and he responded with an opinion that the legal reasoning of the Minnesota authorities is arguable.
"They're probably not within their rights based on decisions that have said the Wire Act applies only to sports betting and not other casino games like slot machines and certainly not poker," the attorney said.
Associated Press carried a major story on the Minnesota bans, opining that the federal law cited by the Minnesota Alcohol and Gaming Division refers to "common carriers," a term that mainly applies to phone companies.
"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," John Morris, general counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington told the news service.
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.
Associated Press writers had clearly done their homework, and drew attention to a similar case in Pennsylvania, which 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.
AT&T Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc., which were among the companies that received the Alcohol and Gaming Division ‘request', said they were reviewing it. Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable ISP, had no immediate comment.
Sounding a practical argument against the route taken by Minnesota, John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said the idea of forcing Internet service providers to filter sites has been almost abandoned because it works so poorly. Either too many sites are blocked, or too few — meaning that even if the ISPs were to cooperate, online gamblers might get around the filters by finding sites that aren't on the list.
In a subsequent statement to Associated Press, Willems said Minnesota might expand the list beyond the still publicly unidentified 200 sites currently on it.
The Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association (iMEGA.org), which has successfully contested other US official moves to interfere with the accessibility of the Internet, was also quick to criticise the Minnesota bans, vowing to contest and halt the state action.
Chairman Joe Brennan, Jr. said: "iMEGA will be reaching out to all concerned parties to block this action by Minnesota."
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