This week I moderated a session at a large information security conference. In the interest of bringing current events into the discussion, I asked how many folks in the audience had their online poker accounts shut down last Friday. More than 5% of the group responded that they had. As a result I began to think about the implications of impacting such a large number of people from a wide set of demographics.
The recent indictments of eleven individuals for allegedly violating various laws to fund online poker accounts may have had an unintended consequence: Creation of a large, new and angry hacker community completely internal to the United States. The shutdown of three large online poker sites (Full Tilt, Pokerstars, Absolute) left as many as 10 million poker players, (who may not be in violation of any laws), without access to their accounts. If the average account was only $100, this action would amount to a freeze of $1 Billion in funds belonging to U. S. citizens who have not been charged with any crime. Although this money could theoretically be refunded by the sites, it is no longer available for the purpose intended.
Aside from the raw magnitude of this action, there are other reasons for disenfranchised poker players to be upset. The District of Columbia recently passed an ordinance specifically allowing online gaming within the District. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has repeatedly ruled that the U. S. must open its market to online gaming sites to be consistent with most other countries. This case has been open for several years and relates to actions initiated by Aruba. Finally, Barney Frank has sponsored legislation that would register, tax and regulate online gaming sites on a national level.
But the biggest issue may be the question of whether the sites themselves are illegal as opposed to the actions of certain executives. All three sites were clearly deemed legitimate in the countries where they operate – Ireland for example. It may not have been necessary to shut down the sites to prosecute the crimes involved. The primary legal question related to online poker appears to be whether it is a game of skill or chance. If it’s not purely a game of chance, poker may not qualify under current laws as “online gaming.” I’m not a legal expert, but I wonder if the shutdown itself, if not justifed, could be a violation.
In order to judge the level of anger, one only has to look at the number and content of online posts related to this event. In a population of 10 million, probability dictates that some number of folks will be upset to the point of action. There would clearly be a lead-in period, but if this group finds a way to organize, life could get interesting. Many poker players are known to be extremely technical and would be valuable additions to existing organizations such as hacker group Anonymous, who I’m sure would welcome the addition of new energy and knowledge to their arsenal. I’m not clear that the shutdown of the poker sites was worth this risk.