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Stakeholders sound off on UIGEA regulations
When U.S. President George W. Bush signed his name to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in October 2006, the Federal Reserve System and Department of the Treasury were given 270 days to formulate regulations for enforcing the new law.
Those proposed regulations arrived three months late and were opened up to public comment until December of last year.
As of today, the UIGEA regulations have yet to go into effect. Regulators from Treasury and the Fed are still looking over the flood of 217 comments they received from five key groups: businesses, trade organizations, political organizations, public officials and individual citizens. Many of the comments raise serious questions about the implementation of the new regulations and the economic impact they will have on financial businesses in America.
The figure in parentheses beside each category indicates approximately what percentage of the total number of comments received came from that category.
The four major American sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) and the NCAA are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the UIGEA. In their comment they noted that "sports gambling threatens both the actual integrity of athletic contests and the perception of the fairness of such contests."
The leagues asked the regulators to implement the proposed regulations swiftly because they are already "long overdue according to the statutory mandate" imposed by the UIGEA.
Citibank raised no serious objections to the proposed regulations, but it was concerned with the six-month window provided for implementing new practices and policies. It noted that "preparing for the effectuation of this regulation will involve considerable time and effort. Consequently, we ask that the Agencies provide for a lead time of no less than 24 months from the final regulation's publication date in the Federal Register."
Small businesses with fewer resources were much less inclined to be supportive of the new regulations, for various reasons.
The Visions Federal Credit Union in New York, for instance, noted that it "does not knowingly do business with any company that may host such sites and therefore should be exempt from the rule, although we would need to rely on the policies and procedures of our credit card payment systems to be in compliance."
The Tucson Greyhound Park in Arizona stated that "the proposed regulation, if not corrected, could lead to overblocking of legal, state sanctioned and regulated pari-mutuel transactions," which it says would run against Congressional intent.
Trade organizations (10%)
The trade organization positions generally tended to echo the positions that individual businesses expressed in their comments.
The National Money Transmitters Association noted that "The Act seeks to use the financial system as a 'choke point' to combat Unlawful Internet Gambling (UIG)." The Association continued, "In general, this approach has proved problematic for all concerned: it is usually difficult to write such rules, difficult to follow them, difficult to let good transactions through, and difficult to tell if the measures are working or are worth the trouble."
The National Association of Federal Credit Unions wrote that it believed the proposed exemptions in place for automated clearing houses (ACH), check collection and wire transfers to be appropriate. "Federal credit unions can be expected to know their members; however, they should not be responsible for validating transactions for which they have little or no information."
IMEGA, the Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Association, stated that "we must lodge the strongest possible objections to both the principles and details of the regulations proposed by your respective Agencies pursuant to the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA). These regulations would, if implemented (and do, even in proposed form), exert a harshly chilling effect on innovation surrounding the Internet."
Political Organizations (3%)
The comments received from political organizations were, unsurprisingly, entirely predictable. Those organizations in favor of online gambling, such as the Poker Players Alliance, urged the regulators to find exceptions and exemptions for businesses involved with such transactions.
Groups opposed to online gambling, such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition, restated their concerns about the morality of gambling and urged the regulators to strengthen penalties for violating the law.
The Christian Coalition even went so far as to suggest that banks should share information about "potentially problematic customers" with each other in a manner that essentially amounts to creating a spy network targeting their own customers.
Public Officials (3%)
Concern about the implementation of new regulations was not limited to businesses and individuals. Members of Congress were well-represented by their understanding of the issues, if not by an overwhelming number of responses.
Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Christopher B. Cannon (R-Utah), the Chair and Ranking Member of the congressional Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, respectively, echoed public concern about the regulations in their comment.
"We recognize that gambling laws vary from state to state and there is only limited federal legislation," the legislators wrote. "However, the lack of legal clarity is not an excuse for the Agencies to simply impose on the regulated community the difficult task of deciding what is and is not 'unlawful Internet gambling' for the purpose of UIGEA."
A group of 16 legislators, including presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas), signed on to another letter expressing concern over the lack of clarity inherent in the term "unlawful Internet gambling."
"The preamble to the regulation cites the difficulty of evaluating every federal and state law with respect to every possible form of gambling as the reason not to do this," wrote the legislators. "Nevertheless, the proposed rule would instead lay that exact burden on the general counsel of every bank, credit union, credit card network and money-transmitting business in the country."
The group of 16 legislators closed with a request that "prior to issuing a final rule, your agencies undertake additional efforts to determine, on a state-by-state basis, precisely what transactions payment systems are required to block."
Responses from individuals made up approximately 64% of the total comments received during the public comment period.
A significant portion of the comments from individuals were reminiscent of the comments on news articles at Web sites such as AOL and CNN. These comments were generally characterized by an evident passion for the game of poker in particular.
Unfortunately for the poker community, many of those same comments were filled with personal attacks and "netspeak" - misspellings, frequent use of abbreviations and a general lack of regard for the rules of English.
Quite often these comments also demonstrated a distinct lack of knowledge of how laws are made, calling upon the regulators to simply scrap the UIGEA even though their only authority is to implement the law as passed by Congress.
A notable portion of the comments from individuals were form letters from the Poker Players Alliance Web site, often preceded by a one- or two-sentence personal statement. One has to wonder whether the PPA should rethink its approach in encouraging its members to comment on public legislation and regulation.
Despite all the angry and misdirected comments from individuals, the majority were still thoughtful and raised many of the same issues as comments from businesses and trade organizations.
Tom Pierce of Oklahoma City, Okla., asked: "How can small shops continue to afford to pay for more and more people to be hired and trained, and trained repeatedly year after year, to monitor more and more activities for enforcement purposes?"
Dan Michalski of Dallas, Texas, webmaster of the popular poker blog Pokerati.com, noted that "the Government manages to simultaneously shirk its responsibility and abuses (sic) its power. It shirks its responsibility by refusing to identify transactions as being legal or illegal, and it abuses its authority by dumping that responsibility on the private sector and encouraging the blocking of legal transactions."
Michalski closed his comment by urging the regulators to go back to the drawing board and "issue effective regulations which identify the illegal forms of gambling, game by game and state by state."
The lawmakers who drafted the UIGEA put the burden of defining "unlawful Internet gambling" on federal regulators. In essence, Congress passed its constitutional responsibility to define the law of the land to another branch of government. In their proposed regulations, the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board took a cue from Congress and passed that burden on to individual banks and payment processors.
The public comments received by the regulating agencies reflect the complications caused by the passing of the buck that former Tennessee senator Bill Frist began when he snuck the UIGEA through on the eve of Congressional recess in 2006. Without clarification, the UIGEA regulations are mostly useless. The public responses simply serve as a mirror reflecting the political landscape of the issue of online gambling.
That regulators are still considering what to do suggests that laws with such a wide effect should be considered very carefully before being passed into law, lest unintended consequences overshadow the original intent of the law.