Britain's culture secretary sought to build support among dozens of nations -- but not the US -- for improved regulation of the global Internet gaming industry on Tuesday at an international summit for the sector.
Officials from more than 30 countries debated regulation measures just weeks after the US effectively banned online gambling and amid fears it could exploit children and encourage criminal activity.
Jowell said that a regulated Internet gaming industry would offer gamblers better protection than the US decision to outlaw the practice.
"Remote gambling has gone from a niche to mass market in a matter of years," Jowell told journalists during a break in the gathering, the first summit to discuss the global impact of Internet gaming. "There is a recognition that it is in the interests of all our citizens that we move to a framework of global standards on Internet gaming."
However, US officials declined an invitation to take part in the talks at the Ascot race course outside London.
Officials from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and online jurisdictions such as Malta, Costa Rica and Antigua and Barbuda attended the session.
British Sports Minister Richard Caborn said after the session that he was pleased with the progress officials had made.
"Those present today agreed to cooperate further in a number of key areas to ensure that gambling remains fair, crime-free and vulnerable people are protected," he said.
Delegates discussed the text of a draft communique and were taking it back to their governments, he said, adding that Britain planned to seek confirmation of the governments' agreement in the coming weeks.
Those present also agreed to propose an expert working group on Internet gambling, which would include representatives of the countries at the conference and international bodies like UNESCO and report back by the middle of next year, Caborn said.
The US Congress caught the gaming industry by surprise when it added a provision to a bill aimed at improving port security to make it illegal for banks and credit card companies to settle payments to online gambling sites. US President George W. Bush signed it into law on Oct. 14.
The decision closed the most lucrative region in a market worth US$15.5 billion this year in "spend" value -- the amount gambling companies win from their clients, or the amount gamblers lose.
Jowell likened the US decision to a new form of the 1920s Prohibition on alcohol, warning that it would drive the industry underground.
PartyGaming PLC, the industry's largest company, said Jowell's proposal were more sensible than a ban.
"You've got to protect the vulnerable, including children, insure fair play and drive any mavericks out," spokesman John Shepherd said in a telephone interview. "Prohibition ... won't stop people from gambling, and it will strip away protection for consumers as easily as flame thrower removes paint from a wall."
PartyGaming, once the envy of online gambling with its more than US$8 billion IPO last year, is now trying to figure out how to save its business model. It runs what was once the world's biggest poker site, PartyPoker, and has said it will no longer take payments from the US, eliminating nearly 80 percent of its revenue and sending its stock plunging.
The draft communique from Tuesday's meeting noted concerns surrounding the industry, including its vulnerability to misuse for criminal activity and its threat to children.
The communique proposed the use of age and customer verification tools to protect young people and the vulnerable. It also called for ongoing communication between national jurisdictions through the International Association of Gambling Regulators.
Antigua in particular is engaged in a strong defense of Internet gaming, one of the tiny Caribbean state's few economic success stories.
It argues that the US ban is in direct contravention to a ruling by the WTO last year that the US amend some of its legislation to permit Antiguan gaming operations to offer their services to US citizens on a level playing field.
Mark Mendel, who leads Antigua's WTO legal team, said he hopes that a closer relationship with Britain will develop stronger support for the ongoing WTO case as well as opening up opportunities for Antiguan licensed companies listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Several London-listed Internet gaming companies and a handful in Europe and Australia sold off or shut down their US operations after the ban, losing around 80 percent of their combined business in the process.
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