WASHINGTON - A bill to ban gambling over the Internet was approved on a 21-8 vote Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill makes it illegal for anyone running a gambling business to place or receive a wager online. It would impose maximum criminal penalties of four years in prison and a fine of $20,000 or the total amount wagered. A similar bill passed the Senate by unanimous agreement in the fall.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said the bill isn't perfect, ''but it does provide prohibitions that we are looking for on the irresponsible, unregulated Internet gambling sites.''
The House Judiciary vote followed debate among panel members who want the ban and others who want to hold off as Congress works on other measures dealing with new technology.
The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said online gambling has grown too much too fast. He cited a January report by Bear, Stearns and Co. that there are at least 650 Internet gambling Web sites, with total 1999 revenue of $1.2 billion, an 80 percent increase over the previous year.
''Many folks view it as a wild frontier, with no safeguards for children and very few legal protections to prevent online criminal activity,'' he said during committee debate on Wednesday.
Just because it holds promise doesn't mean the Internet should be a regulatory-free zone, Goodlatte added.
Critics of the legislation included Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who said, ''The great wisdom we've shown in dealing with the Internet is we have stayed out of the way and let these issues work their way out.''
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, also criticized the measure, and expressed worry a congressional ban on an online activity might stifle growth of the Internet.
Several lawmakers doubted online gambling can be stopped.
''The horse is already out of the barn and this bill will not likely have much more impact than closing the barn door,'' said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
Scott argued the government would have more influence over Internet gambling if it were legalized and regulated than just banned outright.
''If our goal is to protect people that would make more sense than to pass a bill which is absolutely a futile attempt to do anything,'' he said.
Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., said prohibition goes too far, adding, ''The Constitution protects my right to gamble in the privacy of my own home.''