Leading article: Prohibition in the air

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There is a streak of puritanism which has never left the character of the United States of America. The Pilgrim Fathers would have been proud of the decision by Congress last week to outlaw gambling on the internet, even if they might not quite have endorsed the sneaky way the Republican majority did it - they took the gambling industry by surprise by tacking the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act on to the end of an entirely unrelated bill aimed at improving security in America's ports.

There will be some who are gleeful at the result. There is still a certain moral reprobation that attaches itself to the whole business of betting in certain quarters. But the rest of us should be disquieted by a move that seems curiously outdated in a free society.

Undoubtedly, gambling throws up a number of social concerns. Some people become hooked on it. Add in the addictive nature of much internet activity and gambling online is doubly pernicious, critics argue. But we live in a free society in which people have the right to be treated as responsible adults. We do not ban people from driving because, sadly, a tiny minority of them crash their cars.

Efforts to ban online gambling have been going on in the United States for a decade. But what gave added impetus to the crackdown at the present time was not so much anxiety that the firms were not doing enough to screen out underage gamblers or addicts, but the moral panic over the notorious "war on terror" and the fear that internet betting sites can be used to launder money. No doubt the measure's Republican sponsors will have had more than an eye on next month's mid-term elections too.

The new law does not ban gambling as such, but makes it a criminal offence for banks and credit card firms to process online gaming payments from the US. It may well be unenforceable. Many poker players already use intermediary "e-wallets" based in places such as the Isle of Man or the Republic of Ireland. Ingenious gamblers and bookies will try to find ways of making themselves immune from US laws by using ever more complex offshore accounts.

There will be many who are disinclined to fight for their right to do that. But we should be very wary of curbing internet freedoms. The arguments used against online gambling are the same ones deployed by those, such as the government of China, who wish to censor political information - a censorship in which Google has sadly acquiesced. The good that an unregulated internet offers far outweighs the downside of the undesirable material that may be available. Prohibition is once more in the air - and that should alarm us all.

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