Congress has had terrible luck trying to regulate the Internet. A 1996 law aimed at pornography, the Communications Decency Act, was ruled unconstitutional, and a second attempt, the Child Online Protection Act, may well be.
On Monday, the House defeated a bill, similar to one already passed by the Senate, to outlaw certain kinds of Internet gambling. Except for a procedural obstacle - the bill needed a two-thirds rather than a simple majority - the legislation would have passed, and landed the government in the same legal and enforcement mess as other attempts to regulate the Internet.
The question never answered in the debate was: Why bother? Except for anecdotal stories about compulsive gamblers and the overblown threat of children gambling, there seemed no need to ban Internet sports and casino gambling.
The legislation failed to address how the ban would be policed without violating personal privacy, and how it would be enforced against offshore sites except to have the Internet providers do it. As the recording and music industries are learning, rapid changes in how files are shared over the Internet could easily make enforcement mechanisms meaningless.
The 700 or so online betting sites say they would welcome federal regulation and taxation. Of course they would; that would effectively constitute legalization if not outright approval.
The bill would have updated a 1961 law clamping down on sports betting by telephone - how quaint and Runyonesque that sounds - but it was hardly an antigambling measure. The bill would have exempted, and thus recognized, online parimutuel betting - horses, dogs and jai alai. And, up until the 11th hour, the states were lobbying for an exemption for the online sale of lottery tickets.
Internet gambling is really two separate issues - the Internet and gambling. Congress wants to regulate the one and doesn't know what to do about the other. To use a track metaphor, the horses are already out of the gate on gambling. That question is being settled piecemeal under the guise of worthy causes - state lotteries for education, gambling to benefit Indian reservations, casinos and riverboats to revive rundown towns.
In the absence of some compelling need for regulation, Congress should leave the Internet alone. But online gambling is expected to be a $3 billion business in two years and the lawmakers will come back to that issue for the same reason gamblers return to the table - money.