The action seemed to come out of nowhere, with no prior actions to indicate that Minnesota was willing to take such a drastic measure. On April 29, local newspapers got wind of the story that quickly spread about the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division (AGED) instructing all regional telecommunications companies to block the state’s residents from accessing any of nearly 200 online gambling websites.
AGED sent the notice to 11 national and regional telephone and internet service providers - the likes of AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, and Sprint/Nextel - with instructions that they must block any Minnesota-registered computer from accessing the sites via computer or calling the companies. The move was done under the idea that the 1961 Federal Wire Act prohibited interstate wagering using wire communication, despite the fact that the law has never been updated to include internet wires. Companies were given two to three weeks to acknowledge their willingness to comply; otherwise, they will be reported to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with a request for federal pursuit of the companies.
Initially, AGED Director John Willems commented only briefly about the attempted censorship: “We are putting site operators and Minnesota online gamblers on notice and in advance. Disruption of these sites’ cash flow will negatively impact their business models. State residents with online escrow accounts should be aware that access to their accounts may be jeopardized and their funds in peril.”
To the reasoning for the action, Willems said, “In Minnesota, and for Minnesotans, the primary issues are legality, state self-governance, and accountability. In broader context, the long-running debate on online gambling continues to raise significant issues, including absence of policy and regulation, individual rights, societal impact, international fair-trade practices, and funding for criminal and terrorist organization.” Ominous? Fear-inducing? Willems clearly chose his words carefully to appeal to a base that is already fearful of online gambling.
When ESPN was able to contact Willems for further comment, he merely discussed the desire to rid Minnesota of “criminal activity” and plans to take the actions further to include more internet providers as information becomes available. He noted that online gaming “has been for many years declared illegal,” but he is not sure how the telecommunications companies will react as of yet. Any change to the current policy “needs to be from the people” but the current law, as Willems interprets it, required his immediate action (despite the fact that the laws to which he refers have been in place for some time).
The Poker Players Alliance (PPA) came out with an immediate response to the action, via its Minnesota state director Matt Werden, who said, “This isn’t simply a heavy-handed tactic by the government, this is a clear misrepresentation of federal law, as well as Minnesota law, used in an unprecedented way to try and censor the Internet. I don’t know what U.S. Code they’re reading, but it is not illegal to play this great American pastime online, and we’re calling their bluff. The fact is, online poker is not illegal, it’s not criminal, and it cannot be forcibly blocked by a state authority looking to score some political points.”
Further, it became clear through Werden’s statements that the PPA is ready to intervene on behalf of the residents of Minnesota. “The PPA will take any action necessary to make sure our members and the general public are aware of these oppressive and illegal actions, and to make sure the game of poker - in all it’s [sic] forms - is protected in the state of Minnesota.”
Also anxious to come forth on the issue was the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association (iMEGA), an organization that has been with the PPA on the front lines of similar fights in other states. The first action of iMEGA was to request a list of the websites on the blockage requests, though that request was denied until DPS eventually released it on its own the following day.
iMEGA chairman Joe Brennan, Jr. remarked, “Again, you have an example of state government exceeding their authority and operating in secret to deny citizens their freedom to use the Internet as they see fit in the privacy of their own homes. What is most concerning is the shaky legal pretext that Minnesota has used to fashion their order. There is simply no Federal law that exists that makes it illegal for all US citizens to gamble on the Internet. None.”
Numerous other organizations have also spoken out against the actions of AGED in Minnesota, and many are prepared to join the fight to stop the attempted censorship. Specifically, the PPA and iMEGA have demonstrated their willingness to step in and fight for the rights of gaming enthusiasts, not to mention anyone who values their privacy rights, in the recent case against the Commonwealth of Kentucky, where the organizations won in the Court of Appeals and were able to stop the state from seizing control of 141 online gaming domain names.
Minnesota has declared a war of sorts, and the poker community will certainly be on the front lines with the law, various legal precedents, and the will of the people on its side.