By Brian Pempus
Former Congresswoman Mary Bono (R-California) is one of the most prominent figures in the country who right now is fighting in support of Internet poker. As a lawmaker, Bono was also involved with past online poker discussions on Capitol Hill.
Since leaving public office, Bono has joined the “Coalition for Consumer and Online Protection” to help fight a proposed federal ban on Internet Gaming. Efforts to thwart the online games are coming from Sheldon Adelson’s “Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.”
Bono’s group, also known as C4COP, is backed by MGM Resorts, among others, according to Politico. While Las Vegas Sands doesn’t want games in cyberspace, some of its main competitors — such as MGM and Caesars Entertainment — really do. Business models differ.
However, for Bono it’s about the Internet and what can and should be done to help it grow and expand intelligently and safely. “A ban is just a bad idea,” Bono said.
Currently, just three U.S. states have legal and operational online gaming.
Card Player had the chance to speak with Bono about her work with the group.
Brian Pempus: First off, what is the Coalition for Consumer and Online Protection and what is your role with this organization?
Mary Bono: Well, my role is to be a spokesperson. The group is about fighting a proposed online gaming ban. There are efforts in Congress to ban online gaming, and our coalition is just trying to make sure Congress doesn’t do so.
BP: Why did you decide to get involved with this?
MB: The coalition came to me and wanted to talk about it because of my leadership role in the last Congress and my 15 years as a member of Congress. When I chaired the Subcommittee on the Energy and Commerce Committee, we held hearings about online gaming and Internet poker. My approach was pragmatic and cautious, and I hopefully exhibited some thoughtful leadership on the issue. I was honored they came to me to see if I’d continue these discussions now that I’m not a member of Congress.
BP: When you were involved with the hearings, what was the most important thing you learned through them that you didn’t know before about this issue and its complexities?
MB: Not only during the hearings, but with other work I’ve been involved with over the years, the most important issue for me was that…if we ban gaming online we are going to be setting up all sorts of black markets. In the end, consumers would be less safe. I come from a Hollywood background, and one just has to look at what happened to the music and movie industries as they sort of tried to fight the Internet. They never really recovered fully from trying to get in the way of innovation and disruptive technology. It has been proven in the gaming world because the black market sites continue to exist and the lesson is that we should be trying to shape the Internet and keep people safe. Trying to stop it just doesn’t work.
BP: Is there an element of personal freedom wrapped up into this debate? Do Americans have a right to play these games online and on sites that are regulated and secure?
MB: Well, I don’t even go that far. For me, it’s a number of things. Some states are trying it out. It’s early on in seeing what the successes and problems may be. I’m not much of a gambler, but it’s really obvious that to try and stand in the way of this makes it more dangerous for people. Is it a freedom issue? You know, I suppose so, but that’s not really where I’m coming from. I know a lot people feel that way, but for me it’s thoughtful regulation and legislation. When I was a member of Congress, I represented a bunch of tribes and this was an issue that they were grappling with — how to embrace an Internet economy. By stopping legitimate American businesses from venturing into online gaming just empowers the bad guys.
BP: What do you make of Sheldon Adelson’s very public efforts to try and block this fledgling industry from gaining ground in the United States?
MB: For me, it’s not about personalities. It’s so easy to turn this into a war of personalities, but it’s not. It’s a basic fundamental idea. My tenure as a Congresswoman was really during the huge growth and expansion of the Internet. Again, I watched it flourish, some of the good things and some of the bad, but it’s a very positive force. For me, this is about an idea…this has nothing to do with Sheldon. I can understand where Sheldon is coming from, I suppose, and I have tremendous respect for Sheldon, but we disagree.
BP: Do you find it interesting how the casino industry is divided on the online gaming issue in terms of how it would impact the brick-and-mortar side of things?
MB: I can understand why they would be divided, as there are different business models. But, as a former legislator, that wasn’t my concern. It was about the idea and what happens when you try and stand in the way. The Internet is still by and large an unknown commodity. Every year there are new developments…and I think it’s scary for a lot of businesses to compete with the unknown. You have to be pretty brave to venture into this new world. For me, it’s not a matter of that, but allowing the states to decide, recognizing states’ rights on this.
BP: Why do you think efforts at the federal level to legalize online poker have stalled?
MB: For various reasons the Barton bill has stalled. For one, there were problems with the language. The language needed to be fixed and tweaked. But also there are competing issues here. There are states that don’t have gaming, don’t embrace gaming, and their members of Congress aren’t as involved with gaming issues as others may be. Gaming always touches on a bunch of emotions and politics, and this is no different.
BP: Can you ball park the chances of a federal ban coming to fruition?
MB: It’s always hard to predict what Congress will do. You never know what political forces will happen and how the timing can work. In Congress, things can languish and take a long time, or they can move at lightning speed. Either way, people need to be prepared and I believe that people who realize a ban is a bad idea need to really get involved and be ready to get engaged quickly. I do believe that those who are supportive of a ban have a lot of political weight.
BP: You mentioned before about “creating a level playing field” in this industry. Is that something that’s important to keep innovation going for the benefit of consumers?
MB: To a degree. There are important safeguards that need to be in place too. It can’t just be a free-for-all. There must be people who can prove that there are certain protections in place. First and foremost, that they can keep kids off. It’s a little more complicated than being suddenly open to everybody. It takes sophisticated technologies, but they are very doable.
BP: Lastly, what do you think is the most important issue or concern to addressed within this all to help things progress with either legalization or preventing a ban?
MB: It’s important to remember that all we are trying to do right now is not have a ban. The debate about gaming down the road is a whole separate thing. We are focused on trying to stop this ban on Internet gaming. Though, the hurdle I think is educating lawmakers, and people who are interested in this issue really need to reach out to their members of Congress and start today, and make their voices heard and often. Members of Congress react to their constituents, and anytime constituents sit on the sideline and believe that their members are just going to understand how they feel, that’s just not how it works.