- Opponents of online gambling point to certain internet ads as the latest proof Congress and the Department of Justice need to take action regarding a 2011 decision that effectively legalized the industry.
- The ads aren’t intentionally placed on those sites by the online casinos. Instead, they follow people around the web so they’d only appear for someone who has already visited online casinos.
- Opponents said that rationale falls short, citing the example of a problem gambler seeking help.
- “The advertising part of it is exactly what hooks kids and seniors who are desperate, who are marginalized individuals and trying to feed a family,” former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas told Business Insider.
Online-gambling opponents say they’ve spotted ads promoting online betting on children’s game sites and alongside articles about gambling addiction. They’re trying to use this to convince Congress and the Justice Department to reverse a 2011 decision that opened the door for states to permit internet gambling.
A source close to the legislative fight shared screenshots of casino advertising in places they say it doesn’t belong. The ads appear on pages with headlines such as “Twelve Ways To Stop Gambling Addiction Forever” and a gaming website called GirlsGoGames.com.
But the ads aren’t actually targeting kids or gambling addicts. Instead, they’re the kind that follow users around the internet, like, say a promotion for a hotel in San Francisco might keep appearing after someone searches for flights to the city. They’re called retargeting ads by the industry.
A Business Insider search of the same pages screenshotted by the advocates turned up a totally different set of ads.
That doesn’t matter though to opponents of online gaming, who said the fact unrestricted advertising exists at all is a problem.
Former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who works with the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, a group backed by Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, compared the promotions to cigarette ads that are no longer permitted under law.
“You used to have the Marlboro man, you used to have those ads,” she told Business Insider. “Congress in its wisdom and some in the industry determined it was not appropriate. The advertising part of it is exactly what hooks kids and seniors who are desperate, who are marginalized individuals and trying to feed a family.” Advertisers do have the ability to restrict which websites their programmatic ads can appear on, but the system isn’t perfect, and some sites are able to slip through the cracks even if they are restricted by the advertiser. One advertising expert told Business Insider that the website where the ads appear is more at fault for their appearance than the online gambling advertiser whose ads appeared. The issue received some attention in the British press late last year after similar ads were found because of loopholes in the United Kingdom’s advertising laws. The UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice has since set new regulations, which are to take effect next month.
Here are some recent ads:
Meanwhile, a person who works in the online gaming industry describes the ads being passed around by anti-online gambling advocates was “a setup with no substance.”
“We obviously don’t target sites aimed at minors (not only is it insanely immoral, but people under 21 can’t create accounts at regulated online gambling sites in NJ),” said this person, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “As for the screenshots from the news sites, you could come up with a near-infinite number of inappropriate juxtapositions (credit card ads on a site with a story about someone who killed themselves because of financial pressure) by doing what the people shopping the story have done.”
The person added that the ads would only appear if the user first visited an online casino. Gaming opponents say that rationale falls short, citing the example of a problem gambler looking searching for addiction help. But that person in the online gaming industry showed ads on similar pages for traditional casinos like The Venetian and The Palazzo, which are owned and operated by Adelson.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought to have the Justice Department overturn that 2011 ruling.
Late last year, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, both top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pushing him to reverse the 2011 opinion that legalized online casinos. That ruling changed the Department of Justice’s understanding that online gambling was prohibited under the 1961 Wire Act. Instead, the DOJ said that law only applied to sports betting, and it led to a number of state’s moving to legalize online gambling.
- Mark Wilson/Getty Images
“Concerns about the proliferation of online gambling are bipartisan and span the political spectrum,” they wrote. “The 2011 DOJ opinion needs to be revisited and withdrawn, with the question of whether online casinos should be permitted in the United States properly returned to Congress to determine.”
Graham and Feinstein sent a similar letter Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier last year, urging him to take similar action. Sessions promised to look into the matter during his confirmation hearings.
In July, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia pressed Sessions to review the opinion, writing that online platforms were “especially fertile platforms for the facilitation of money laundering, collusion and other illegal activities.”
On the other hand, some lawmakers are urging the Justice Department not to reverse the ruling.
Earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada wrote to Rosenstein urging him against taking such action. She said the industry will simply slip into the shadows if made illegal once again.
“In Las Vegas, we have seen that a regulated market is always better than an illegal one,” Titus wrote. “Internet gambling will not go away with a reversal of Wire Act guidance; it will merely push more consumers into black markets.”
President Donald Trump hasn’t taken a position on the issue, telling The Associated Press in 2016 that he has friends on both sides. Adelson, who backs the CSIG, is a top donor to Trump and congressional Republicans.
“It’s just such a common sense thing if you have kids and if you have seen and noticed people that have addictions,” Lincoln said, adding that the issue is too important to be settled “just simply by one individual reinterpreting something.”