As one dotcom casino puts it: “The comfort of playing in your own home makes online casinos a very attractive betting place.”
If you believe Robin Cook, the main threat we face from computers is “hacking”. Cyber-terrorism, he warned his parliamentary colleagues, can “cripple Britain faster than a military strike”. It seems that Cook, like Ronald Reagan before him, has been reading too much Tom Clancy. Or, more likely, he knows that if you frighten the pants off us we may not ask awkward questions about the bill for £2.5bn that MI5, MI6, and GCHQ is presenting to British taxpayers for the privilege of having their email spied on. There have been other recent warnings about the dark side of the net. Yahoo’s confirmation that it is selling hardcore pornography videos and DVDs (to make up the bankrupting shortfall in advertising revenue) is seen as the opening of those floodgates about which Mrs Whitehouse and Lord Longford have been warning western civilisation for so many years.
The real and imminent danger of universal popular access to the net is less dramatic. Not from computer literate fundamentalists with their cyber-bombs or Levantine porn merchants offering us their sisters online, but gambling. Every democratic society has discovered the hard way that controlling gaming by prohibition doesn’t work. It simply cheeses off the electorate (who see nothing wrong in a “flutter”) and it encourages crime. The only thing that does seem to work is keeping the level of inconvenience high. OK, America says. You can gamble. But you have to fly to Nevada, or bump your way over some dirt road to an Indian casino to do it. OK, says the UK. You can gamble; but you have to queue up in a shop and do things with fiddly bits of paper. And, if you lose money (which you will) it’ll take long enough to have second thoughts. Above all, if you gamble, the treasury will skim off a chunk as sin tax for good causes. Gambling on the web is something else. Games of pure chance and part skill – slots, blackjack, poker, and roulette – are perfect for computer graphics. The action is magnitudes faster than in the slickest casino. There’s no need to shuffle the cards, or wait for the ball to bounce, the cherries to land, or for other players to get off the pot. Once you’ve downloaded and registered (most casinos will give you between $10-$100 starting bonus by way of hook) you can log on in seconds: 24/7. You don’t need chips: just a credit card number. Your winnings will come, by mail or wire, in five days (you’ll need a double dose of luck to collect. Some 35% of net casinos welch). As one dotcom casino puts it: “The comfort of playing in your own home makes online casinos a very attractive betting place.” It comes to you, it’s private. Not even your spouse or kids will know – until you give them matching Mercedes from your net-gotten gains. For addicts, net gambling is the great rock-candy mountain. It’s like an alcoholic being given a bathroom in which the taps run with iced vodka. It’s growing explosively. Of the 90m web users in the US, some 5% have gambled online. A million do so every day. The turnover is estimated at $1.5bn annually – rising to $5bn by next year. In America, net gambling is illegal by federal law.
You can’t gamble down telephone wires and that’s where the digitized pulse travels. But the web is world wide. Some 1,500 online casinos have established themselves (by domain name) in the Caribbean. They can suck money out of plastic with no problem at all. And they pay no tax. Overheads are minimal. No need for all that expensive Las Vegas glitz. Washington is powerless to control them, any more than it can control the Central American drug cartels. It’s the poor, uneducated, lonely and elderly who are most susceptible. The nice old lady who would once enjoy a cheap night of bingo can now max out her credit cards in half an hour. A few states (led by Nevada) have made it illegal to place bets online. But not one of the million who gamble every day has been prosecuted. Some credit cards won’t pay gambling debts – but, as with porn (“discretion is assured”) it’s impossible to know what is a gambling debt. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission (set up by Congress in 1996) firmly recommended that all forms of “convenience gambling” be banned. But there’s no convenient way of doing it.