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Australia seeks a ban on Net gambling

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's conservative government said it will seek to prohibit betting on the Internet, acknowledging the country has a gambling problem.

"Australia's status as one of the world's leading problem gambling nations demands that we take decisive action to protect the most vulnerable in our community," Communications Minister Richard Alston said in a statement released this week.

Alston said laws would soon be introduced to bar gaming and wagering services, including electronic poker machines, casino games, sport betting and lotteries, that are offered commercially over the Internet.

The legislation would also seek to prohibit gambling via interactive television and mobile phones.

But casino operators said a worldwide proliferation of interactive sites virtually guaranteed access to Australian bettors.

"The simple fact is that Australians will still have access to hundreds of overseas sites that do not have the (same) high standards of customer protection in place as do Australian regulated sites," Australian Casino Association Executive Director Chris Downy said.

Official reports show that 80 percent of Australians gamble at least once a year, 40 percent regularly.

The nation of 19 million people is home to one in five of the world's poker machines.

The opposition Labor Party said trying to impose a ban would just make Australia look technologically inept.

"The message the (government) is sending to the world is that we are an IT backwater, prohibiting content because the government has no idea how to implement a workable policy that protects those most at risk without encumbering Internet development," shadow youth affairs minister Kate Lundy said.

A government-backed 12-month freeze on new Internet gaming services is due to end on May 19.

A legislative ban would not stop Australian firms from offering interactive gaming services overseas, Alston said.

"Instead, the legislation will place the onus on gambling service providers to determine whether users are physically located in Australia and, if they are, to prevent them from accessing the gambling site," Alston said.

The managing director of online gambling provider Lassiters, Peter Bridge, said he was pleased the government had opted to allow Australian companies to continue operating overseas.

"We operate in 210 countries and Australia is a very small part of our business," Bridge said.

Lassiters introduced online gambling in Australia in 1999 prior to the freeze, enabling it to continue to offer some gaming services at home.