According to the U.S. Justice Department, I may have just committed a felony. Federal prosecutors say helping Americans find online casinos or sports betting operations could amount to "aiding and abetting" illegal gambling, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
Last June, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John G. Malcolm sent a letter to media trade groups warning that their members could be breaking the law by accepting ads for gambling sites. Meanwhile, Raymond W. Gruender, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, has convened a grand jury in St. Louis that is issuing subpoenas to companies that do business with the online gambling industry.
This campaign of intimidation already has yielded results. Since last fall several media companies, including Infinity Broadcasting, Viacom Outdoor, Discovery Networks, and Clear Channel Communications, have stopped running ads for online casinos and betting services.
This month Google and Yahoo!, two of the most widely used Web search engines, also caved. Although Google was vague about its motivation, Yahoo! said "a lack of clarity in the environment" makes gambling ads "too risky."
These companies have surrendered their First Amendment rights without a fight, allowing the government to silence speech it doesn't like by floating a legal theory that almost certainly would fail if it were tested in court. Their capitulation illustrates the chilling effect of vague laws in the hands of ambitious prosecutors.
"There is concern that gambling advertising may create the impression among the public that these activities are legal, when in fact they are not," Justice Department spokesman Michael Kulstad told Media Daily News. "It's an 'aiding and abetting' kind of thing."
The law is not nearly as clear as Kulstad implies. The Justice Department maintains that online gambling is banned by the 1961 Wire Act, which prohibits anyone "engaged in the business of betting or wagering" from using "a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers."
But gambling sites are based in countries where online wagering is perfectly legal. It's debatable whether a bet placed by an American via the Internet takes place on his computer, at the casino in, say, Costa Rica, or somewhere in between.