The year's first congressional hearing on Internet poker wasn't so much a debate about the merits of federally licensing and regulating the game online as it was a discussion of how eventual regulation should be handled.
Tuesday's hearing in the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade was a lot different from past Capitol Hill hearings poker, most of which involved contentious arguments between Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) in the House Financial Services Committee.
There were no poorly made Bachus comparisons of poker to drug trafficking or child pornography in this hearing. Each of the six witnesses spoke in favor of legalizing online poker or at least offered constructive suggestions for how regulation could help with issues of consumer protections. Subcommittee members also spoke favorably on the issue for the most part.
"With so many issues before Congress, we are encouraged that ensuring player protections for online poker was raised for consideration by this committee," said Poker Players Alliance chairman Alfonse D'Amato, who served as a witness. "Clearly Congress is hearing the voices of the thousands of poker players across the country who have expressed their frustration at the government's actions to restrict their personal freedom to play this great game."
The nearly two-and-a-half hour hearing can be viewed in its entirety on the C-SPAN website. Click the link titled "Hearing on Online Gaming: From Earlier" under the video playlist on the right side.
Subcommittee member Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who has introduced a bill to license and regulate Internet poker, proved once again to be an effective champion for people's right to play the game.
"I learned to play poker, believe it or not, in the Boy Scouts," Barton said. "If you learn something in the Boy Scouts, it's got to be a good thing, right?"
Witnesses, with links to their written testimony, were D'Amato; Parry Aftab, member of the board of advisors for FairPlayUSA; Ernest L. Stevens, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association; Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling; Kurt Eggert, law professor at Chapman University; and Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Subcommittee chairman Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) opened the hearing with a fair take on the issue, though littered with poker terms in cringe-worthy fashion. "Clearly, the stakes are high, and a 'showdown' is likely on Capitol Hill in the months ahead."
Bono Mack cited a UCLA survey that approximately 85 percent of U.S. adults have gambled at some time in their lives.
D'Amato, a former Senator of New York who knew many members of the subcommittee, was the first witness to speak.
"I think what the committee will discover in the course of this hearing is that the status quo is badly broken and benefits no one — not my members, not the federal or state governments, not minors or problem gamblers, not the financial services sector and certainly not the U.S. economy," D'Amato said.
To illustrate the point that, despite Black Friday, online poker is still being played without regulations in the U.S. today, D'Amato noted that PPA executive director John Pappas opened an account on Bodog that morning and successfully deposited with a federal credit union debit card.
Aftab, Whyte and Romer all spoke on the benefits licensing and regulation could have on preventing the participation of minors and promoting responsible gaming.
"After more than a decade of analyzing the risks posed by unregulated Internet gambling, it may be ironic but I have reached the conclusion that the best way to protect families and consumers in connection with online gambling is regulating it, not prohibiting it," Aftab said.
Whyte said his research shows that participation rates in gambling do not change much based on the legality of the activity in the jurisdiction. He also noted that those who gamble on the Internet also usually do so in more traditional forms, concluding that it seems unlikely that legalization would significantly increase participation among those who are not currently gambling.
Stevens basically said the Indian tribes have come to the conclusion that they generally support legalizing Internet poker as long as it benefits them.
Eggert spoke on how regulations could protect the consumer. His testimony might be alarming to professional poker players because he also wants to protect the fish from the sharks. He proposed a rating system for Internet poker similar to chess so that fish know if they are going against a significantly better player.
Eggert also brought up the problem of bots and the concern that "super bots" could evolve to avoid detection. D'Amato and the other witnesses weren't prepared to address this concern. Pappas said the PPA will prepare a letter to send out to the subcommittee in the next week to provide a better understanding of the prevalence of bots, what is being done to handle them today and what could be done in the future.
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) read a statement from American Gaming Association president Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., supporting the licensing and regulation of online poker that was added to the record.
Pappas said he expects the subcommittee or perhaps the full House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold another hearing on the issue before the end of the year. In her closing remarks, Bono Mack indicated that she looked forward to working with the witnesses again as the subcommittee continues to explore the issue of Internet gambling.
"It was great not to hear any opening statements on how Internet gambling is going to be the end of modern civilization," Pappas said. "I think it's really encouraging to see lawmakers give such a thoughtful approach to this. My take on this was a sense of the subcommittee not looking at the matter of whether Internet gambling should be regulated but when and how it should be regulated. I think that is a tremendous step in the right direction and light years away from where we were two, three or four years ago."
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