The UIGEA, is an acronym for Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, a bill which was passed in 2006, as part of the “Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006” otherwise known as the SAFE Port Act. This law changed the landscape of online gambling in the US and affected internet gaming operations across the world.
Before the UIGEA, gambling online had been growing since the mid 1990s, as millions of people placed wagers with online sportsbooks or played hands of online poker. Many social conservatives in the United States government wanted to put an end to all this off shore wagering.
The problem was that the law on internet gambling was extremely grey, or unwritten. Since the companies were not operating in the US, the owners could not be rounded up and arrested. The legality of placing wagers online was unclear, and lawmakers were not exactly industry experts. In fact, the last law on the books that could possibly pertain to online gambling was the 1961 Federal Wire Act, which relates to betting intrastate through telephone lines. Basically, there were no laws or authority on online wagering.
In 1999, there was an attempt to outlaw internet gambling in the form of the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. The bill passed in the House, but died in the Senate. Now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was partly responsible for the failure of the bill, as he passed off funds to certain groups to oppose the legislation, and received inside information on ways to defeat it.
Factors Leading to Passage
A number of factors lead to the UIGEA’s passage in 2006. In the mid-term 2006 Congressional Elections, Congress was being overhauled. Republicans would probably lose out to Democrats, and it was rumored the latter were more pro online gambling or simply just apathetic to the issue. The Republicans, the more socially conservative party, had leaders that long wanted to put an end to internet gambling.
The Act, had many supporters across the Republican Party, but there are two main Senators who are credited with expediting its passage. Those two men were Jon Kyl and Bill Frist. Kyl had long been an advocate against the expansion of gambling and worked with Congressman Jim Leach, to bring the act quickly to the forefront.
Frist, a hard-line Republican, had been the Senate Majority leader since 2003, eyed a possible presidential campaign in 2008. He figured being the politician who “protected our children from the social and economic evils of online gambling” would look good in upcoming presidential elections. Thankfully, Frist’s presidential campaign never did materialize.
Frist and some GOP regulars were not the only reason the UIGEA was quickly pushed through. Professional sports leagues and more specifically the National Football League were lobbying hard to get the bill passed. At a minimum, the NFL had hired lobbyists to push for the legislation, and it was likely that other professional leagues did as well.
In fact, the passage of the bill specifically exempts “fantasy sports leagues”, a clear mark of the NFL’s influence. Online horse racing was also exempt from the bill, an obvious caveat, as horse racing is tied to many state economies. It is likely that the bill would have never touched the floor of Congress without those exemptions.
The bill was passed on the last day before Congress was adjourned before the 2006 Congressional Elections. It was hastily tacked onto the Safe Port Act, which dealt with safeguarding American waterways and ports. It is likely that few saw the official language of the bill before it was passed, as it was quickly added on to this piece of unrelated legislation in the waning hours of a Conference Report.
The SAFE Port Act passed by a large margin in the House and was approved unanimously in the Senate. Only then was the UIGEA amended into this unrelated legislation via Conference Report, and was signed into law by President Bush on October 13th, 2006.
At the time of the UIGEA’s passage the regulations and gritty details of the bill had yet to be written. In fact, the regulations saw “numerous delays” and were not put into place until January 19th, 2009, the day before the Obama administration took office. Banks and other financial institutions had till December 9th, 2009, to be in compliance with these regulations.
After the passage of the bill, online poker rooms and sportsbooks had many different responses. Many continued to operate with virtually no change, and yet others almost immediately closed up shop for United States citizens.
Party Gaming, owner of Party Poker, one of the top online poker rooms in the world quickly left the US market. 888, which ran Pacific Poker also left. Many smaller rooms closed down operations. Public traded companies such as 888 and Party Poker, almost had to leave the market, because theoretically their shareholders could be held liable for violations committed by the company, even though they had to forfeit half their player base.
The UIGEA also knocked out e-wallet Neteller from the US market. In a rather dramatic turn of events, the DOJ froze millions of dollars of US players’ funds. The US players finally received their cash (in full), about a year and a half later.
However, as some sites left others began to pursue the US online poker market share despite warnings from the US Government. Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, two privately operated rooms, quickly gobbled up Party Gaming’s share of the US online poker market.
UIGEA Specifics and Enforcement
The UIGEA has five sections, each pertaining to the enforcement of the Act. The overall purpose of the UIGEA is to restrict companies from knowingly accepting bets or wagers from players from the United States. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation files these under restricted transactions, which involve gambling businesses that accept payments from another person in a bet or wager on the internet.
The regulations of each section are somewhat vague, for instance the Act outlaws betting or wagering on the outcome of a contest, or any game subject to chance. Poker and sports betting are lumped into this category.
While the bill goes after foreign online gambling operators, and allows the US government to seize URLs of suspected gambling operators, it still offers no penalties to private citizens who deposit and bet online. However, the government has issued statements that online gambling is illegal.
The government’s prohibitions on electronic fund transfers or wires are virtually unenforceable. Due to the millions of transactions processed per day, it is almost impossible for banks to seed through all these transactions to search for fraudulent ones. In addition to that, the laws directed at offshore gambling operators are unenforceable and therefore, somewhat trivial.
The final regulations of the UIGEA were not actually released until two years after the bill had been written. The government even offered public comment on the regulations and received hundreds of responses from a number of different groups and members of congress. These final regulations were released in November of 2008, and went into effect on January, 2009, the day before President Bush left office.
World Trade Organization Dispute
Antigua and the US have always had it out over issues regarding internet gambling, and in 2007 the WTO ruled that the US was in violation of its treaty because it did not allow full market access to the companies based in Antigua.
Antigua filed a claim for over 3 billion dollars, and a request to ignore US copyright laws. The request was repeated by the European Union, as they accused the United States of protectionism.
The US settled these disputes shortly after the decision was made, by granting Antigua concessions in other sectors. However, the Bush administration never went public with these concessions, and even blocked the public from viewing them.
Challenges to UIGEA
iMEGA, the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association, brought the law to a US Federal Circuit court in September of 2009. iMEGA’s case was essentially that UIGEA was unconstitutional.
Though, the 3rd Circuit Court upheld the UIGEA as a law, the court set a precedent of enforcement and legitimacy on the states. Essentially, the law stated that internet gambling could not be deemed illegal if the state did not have a law specifically stating that internet gambling was against the law. As things stood, the law simply did not make any gambling illegal, despite claims from the Department of Justice. The Act does not supplant state laws, so it does not make internet gambling expressly illegal in states where it is not explicitly stated.
Even though, iMEGA lost their case, they felt this brought them a small victory. At the time of the verdict, only six out of fifty US states had laws that specifically outlawed online gambling.
Anti UIGEA Legislation
In the time since the passage, several US Senators and Representatives have pushed for a regulated US gaming environment or a repeal of the UIGEA.
Most notably, Congressman Barney Frank, introduced The Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act, in 2009. The bill would repeal the problems associated with implementing the UIGEA, and help protect problem and underage gamblers if the US would become a regulated online gaming environment.
If the bill had passed, online poker would have immediately been exempted from the UIGEA. Unfortunately, the bill never made it of the House Financial Services Committee.
UIGEA Enforcement – Black Friday
Though, the passage of the UIGEA changed the gambling landscape almost instantly, no one was sure of how serious the government was at getting rid of online gambling.
Many viewed the UIGEA as a warning shot to online gamblers, and those operating gambling sites who took US bettors as customers. The industry and bettors alike wondered, “How much time was the US Department of Justice really devoting towards online gambling?” They found out that answer on April, 15 2011.
On a day poker players dubbed “Black Friday”, the US DOJ, specifically, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York hit hard. The Department of Justice seized domain names of five of the largest poker rooms in the world and indicted their owners, employees, and various payment processors. In addition, the government froze seventy or more bank accounts of the companies, which totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.
The online poker rooms and processors were charged with multiple UIGEA violations, money laundering, and even a violating a 1995 Illegal business act. Many of those indicted are facing life sentences.
The sites affected were PokerStars, Full Tilt, Ultimate Bet, and Absolute Poker. Each left the US market, and their owners and operators all faced US indictments and several felonious UIGEA violations.
Though, the UIGEA and the DOJ’s barrage of indictments knocked out the key players in the US facing online poker market, it did not take out all the sites. There are still many online gambling sites that accept US citizens that are still operating.
The difference now is that, these sites recognize the US government means business, and will spend millions of dollars and years of building a case to take them down. Many online operators have reported receiving “cease and desist” letters from the US government, warning them to stop servicing US citizens. Most have gotten rid of their .com domain names, because they have been seized or are likely to be seized by the DOJ.
In December of 2011, the DOJ then stated that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting. Internet poker players rejoiced, and the law spawned many states to examine internet gambling legislation. Though, the UIGEA was still a federal law, this role refusal on the Wire Act gave states the green light to offer internet poker on the intrastate level.
As of October 2012, Nevada and Delaware have both legalized intrastate online poker, but the states are still in the licensing phase. Many other states have begun thinking about statewide legalization, and several federal bills are on the table as well.
Joe Falchetti is a professional poker player, sports bettor and writer. You can read more of his musings at www.sportsbettingonline.net where he writes strategy, news and opinion pieces on a weekly basis.
“6 years ago, on October 13th 2006. George Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, Joe Falchetti submitted a look back at the history of the bill and its effects over the past 6 years.” If you would like to submit an editorial please contact Bill Beatty.