Opinions are like assholes – everyone has one but they think each others’ stink. Excuse the vernacular, but it’s a fair assumption that myriad stakeholders in the US online gaming sector feel that the opinion made public this week by the Department of Justice on the Interstate Wire Act is a bit of a stinker. Unfortunately there’s no top note of rose petals to soften the olfactory blow.
If you haven’t seen it, assistant attorney general to the Office of Legal Counsel Stephen Engel confirmed that the Wire Act applies to all forms of gambling, not just sports betting as was previously accepted as being the case.
The very real problem with this latest opinion is that rather than clarify the issue of internet gambling, it simply creates confusion and a good deal of justified irascibility. An outmoded, outdated geriatric piece of legislation just became more outmoded, outdated and geriatric due largely to a single comma that seems to have gone absent without leave.
It has been suggested that this volte face represents a dark day for the online gaming sector in the US. And judging by the understandable reluctance on the part of any stakeholder to issue a direct response to the situation, it seems it’s being viewed as such. The guards are up and chins are down as the industry braces itself for a sucker punch.
What the DoJ opinion ultimately achieves is to create uncertainty – and that’s rarely a good thing for any sector of industry but perhaps less so for gambling. It prompts companies to slow down on investment and sit on their hands. Instead of questioning where the next bright innovation is coming from, they’re checking over their shoulders to see if there’s a lawsuit creeping up on them.
There is a silver lining tucked away deep inside this cloud – Engel’s opinion is just that, an opinion. In other words, it is wide open to interpretation by the courts and, as we all know, interpretations are there to be challenged. Whether or not the online gambling sector will continue to trade on blithely in the face of that uncertainty is, itself, open to interpretation.
We wrote some months ago about the Wire Act and how much of a part it would come to play in US sports betting. The view back then was that there’s a need for patience and measured debate about how the act might be adapted to offer a legal framework that’s fit for purpose in a digital world. And that still stands.
Why? Well the Wire Act was inaugurated in 1961 at a time when the last word in mobile telephony comprised two cups and a length of string. The basis for the act was proposed by attorney general Robert F Kennedy, ostensibly, to combat trafficking by the mob. What he didn’t take into account is that the mob would never respect the contents of the Wire Act; it never will. He also didn’t envisage a society in which betting on all kind of sports, events and outcomes without being attached to a physical landline would become as commonplace as buying a beer.
The Wire Act, while once full of worthy intentions, is beginning to look like an anachronism; a parody of a law that is driving US bettors directly to the mob it set out so long ago to hoof out of existence. It’s an analogue act in a digital age. As relevant as Quorn at a butchery convention! So who’s ready to start the debate?