Policymakers must get on board with online gambling

On Wednesday night, Justin Timberlake and other Hollywood stars walked the red carpet in Las Vegas to premiere their new movie, “Runner Runner,” a harrowing account of a lawless online poker world ruled by shady and unethical characters.

Their story is fiction — and no doubt entertaining — but sadly, it is not far from reality for millions of Americans who simply want a safe online environment in which to enjoy one of America’s favorite pastimes.

Currently, Americans spend $2.6 billion annually on illegal offshore gambling websites, according to new research from H2 Gambling Capital. In fact, Americans generate nearly 10 percent of the current $33 billion worldwide online gambling market, despite the fact that the U.S. government is doing everything in its power to crack down on illegal operators — just like those portrayed in “Runner Runner.”

Clearly, online gambling — specifically poker — is here to stay. The question policymakers need to answer is whether we will put proper regulations in place or allow the black market to rule.

Nevada is among only three states — Delaware and New Jersey are the others — that have passed legislation to license and regulate online poker. And just as it always has in the bricks-and-mortar gaming environment, Nevada has been a leader in developing comprehensive regulations that protect consumers who want to play online poker safely.

As other states look to get in on the action, we are presented with an uncertain future that puts consumers at risk. To alleviate this risk, the American Gaming Association has long encouraged Congress to pass legislation to establish federal minimum standards that address consumer protection; prevent underage gambling; promote responsible gaming; and provide help for those with gambling problems.

A federal approach can also address other important issues that individual states cannot. First, it would allow Native American casino operators — who will never agree to be regulated by the states — to be involved. Second, it could clarify and restore federal law so law enforcement communities have the tools necessary to prosecute illegal online gambling operators and keep them out of the U.S. market once and for all. Individual states acting alone will not have this power.

As we have already seen, if Congress fails to act, states will move forward. While this approach will yield more protections than currently exist, we will be left with a state-by-state patchwork of regulations across the borderless Internet. And the black market will continue to thrive in states that choose not to pass legislation. That will put gaming patrons, problem gamblers and minors at unnecessary risk.

Legislation that includes the above provisions would protect the rights of states and tribes to make their own decisions on the licensing and regulation of online poker. Most importantly, the gaming industry’s proposed regulations will protect our consumers and make sure that the drama of “Runner Runner” stays in the movies.

Amidst the fashion, smiling faces and camera flashes of last night’s premiere, “Runner Runner” serves as a reminder of what can happen when illegal operators are allowed to dominate the market, as they do today. There is no question online gambling is here to stay. It’s past time for policymakers to step forward and establish basic, consistent and necessary consumer protections.

Geoff Freeman is the president and CEO of the American Gaming Association.