UK bookies toe the US government line

Will Sturgeon,
May 09, 2003, 14:50 GMT

The US government is pressurising bookies and credit card companies to block US citizens from gambling online, in an effort to save 'the American Family'

UK bookies are this week ruing a US decision to press on with attempts to stop Americans accessing overseas betting sites.

Most US states remain strongly anti-gambling and many Americans have to register with offshore services in order to place a wager. However, the government is now moving to block that activity -- claiming it has the interest of 'the American family' at heart.

The move will come as a major blow to online bookies for whom the US -- and its vast untapped population of would-be gamblers -- represents something of a promised land.

Ed Pownall, spokesman for online bookmaker Blue Square, said: "Obviously the US is holy grail territory for us, but we've never accepted US bets, which is a policy based on the fact that if in 10, 15 or 20 years' time they do start awarding licences to operate in the US they are very unlikely to grant a licence to anybody who flouted the ban at any point."

Critics of the plans claim the US government does not have the jurisdiction to stop what its citizens are doing while effectively 'overseas' -- providing they are acting within the laws of the country where the website is registered. But this point is something which legislators have neatly sidestepped.

"While [the US government] may not have the authority or the jurisdiction to enforce this ban, they do have the power to pressure credit card companies and payment companies into withdrawing all support for people trying to place bets online," said Pownall. "They have already won the battle with PayPal and cutting people off at this level can prove very effective.

"I think this is probably just bluster from the US government, but they do carry a great deal of power and I think in the long term it will serve us better to be seen to be toeing the line," he added.

Pownall believes the carrot of one day being allowed to trade in the US should be enough to keep most 'turf accountants' in line.

One bookie who accepted bets from the US until last year was William Hill. But Graham Sharpe a spokesman for the company suggested there is more to life than being 'big in America'.

"There is a lot of world out there," he said. "We have clients in some 200 countries of the world now and the number of new domestic clients betting via the internet is still increasing."

However, he refused to rule out a return to US waters should there be any change in legislation. "Just because we are not targeting US business at the moment does not mean we never will," he said.