Out of Control Policy Blog

Internet Censorship "Plain and Simple"--Updated

Unfortunately, last week a Kentucky judge sided with the state government and called for the seizure of 141 domain names from Internet gambling sites. Faced immediately with the practical, logistical (not to mention legal) questions involved in such a seizure, Judge Thomas Wingate of the Franklin Circuit Court, as a way of exercing direct control over the matter, ordered ISPs to begin blocking access to these sites from residences and other access points inside the state.

The state's move toward seizure, which stands to be appealed, had the ardent support of Gov. Steve Beshear, who saw online gaming as a threat to the state's own gambling revenues.

This marks the first time, I believe, that a U.S. federal, state or local government official has ordered wholesale blocking of a legal Internet application. It's censorship. Gambling on games of skill is not against the law in the Bluegrass State, home of the storied Kentucky Derby, but wagering on games of chance is. So, in an attempt to justify his ruling, Wingate unilaterally declared poker a game of chance. Now in a game of chance, the outcome must be based on pure randomness, every entrant has the same chance of winning and there is no role for the use of strategy to improve one's odds of winning. Anyone who's played seven-card stud, triple draw or Texas hold 'em knows that with poker, that isn't the case. Take two groups of players and deal them the same cards and the outcome will most likely be different. And all you have to do is point to the elite group of professionals who year after year, lead among moneymakers. Consistent winning is contrary to chance.

The Poker Players Alliance (PPA), an advocacy group for online poker players and websites, commented on the decision, handed down last Friday. (Full disclosure: I am PPA member and have played online poker.)

"Clearly, we believe the judge in this case got it wrong," said John Pappas, executive director of the PPA. "First of all, we strongly disagree with Judge Wingate's ruling that poker is not a game of skill. As demonstrated in the amicus brief we filed, skill plays an essential role in being a successful poker player. Additionally, we believe that by confirming Governor Beshear's actions, the court has set a dangerous precedent for censorship of the Internet. Today's ruling is a big step backward for both personal rights and Internet freedom."

"Judge Wingate's order is a huge disappointment to the thousands of Kentuckians who play Internet poker. In essence, Governor Beshear and Judge Wingate are denying law-abiding citizens this form of recreation simply because it is enjoyed on the Internet. This is Internet censorship by judicial fiat, plain and simple," said Rich Muny, Kentucky State Director of the Poker Players Alliance. Muny resides in Union, KY.

According to PPA, several states, including Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Washington, have passed laws against online gambling. In others, existing laws against any gambling might cover Internet play, but so far none seems to have been tested in this regard. The federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 does not make online poker illegal, it prohibits U.S. banks from transferring funds to online gaming enterprises, making it difficult for U.S.-based users to set up wagering accounts with sites, all of which are registered outside the U.S. Both state and federal government officials have harassed or detained executives of off-shore Internet gambling companies when they have visited the U.S.

I'm sure there's a substantial group out there who sees gambling as a potentially destructive personal activity which the Internet makes that much easier in which to indulge. So there's bound to be some political support for Beshear's action. It's too bad these groups fail to see Internet censorship in the broader context of personal liberty. Government–especially one judge–has no place telling individuals how they can spend their time and money in pursuit of entertainment that does no harm. And to do so by forcing ISPs to block web sites, the sort of blunt coercion associated with repressive regimes such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, is even more troublesome. Here's hoping for a quick overturn of this potentially dangerous precedent.

But let me get off my soapbox and ask a more practical question. In this time of ever shrinking tax receipts and tighter and tighter budgets, isn't it time for state governments to give some thought to law enforcement priorities? Have violent crimes, along with devastating forms of fraud such as identity theft decreased to such a point that Kentucky can shift a significant portion of prosecutorial and judicial resources to mounting what could become an extended international legal battle over the ownership and disposition of Internet domain names that were acquired properly by legal businesses?

The answer is no. On both principled and administrative level, the state of Kentucky had displayed awfully poor judgment. It's only a question of how much taxpayer money it will waste until it realizes so.


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