Congress is considering ways to stop gamblers from placing bets online, one of the Internet's fastest-growing sectors, and about the only thing the smart money can say for sure is there are no fence-straddlers on the issue.
Operating online sites for sports betting or such virtual casino games as blackjack or poker is already illegal in this country, but that hasn't stopped millions of Americans from making their way to about 2,000 overseas sites based in nations big and small, from Britain to Antigua.
The annual worldwide betting volume is $6 billion and could hit $9 billion in a few years, according to industry estimates.
The future of Internet gaming melds two key issues: whether society should allow the rising tide of gambling to reach into every American's home computer and whether it's right to stamp out what some view as a social and moral evil but others view as good, clean fun.
The House and Senate have backed bills against Internet gambling in recent years but never in the same year or in the same form, so they never became law.
But the idea that Americans, especially residents of states where all forms of gambling are illegal, can sit at home and make bets has raised the ire of such anti-gambling legislators as the current measure's author, Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, who has pushed the ban for five years.
"Family problems, children gambling, organized crime, debt, bankruptcy - it's the same problem, whether it's casinos or online gambling," he said last week as the House Judiciary Committee debated his bill.
Goodlatte's latest bill, which updates the 40-year-old Interstate Wire Act, tries to stamp out Americans' use of overseas gambling sites by allowing the Justice Department or state prosecutors to get a court order cutting off bettors' payments to those sites. The legislation also would force Internet providers to ban the sites and block the sites' ability to post pop-up ads.
Although the wire act makes it illegal to place bets using phone lines, hardly any bettors have ever been prosecuted, and only a few operators of offshore Web sites have been convicted.
Another bill pending in the House, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, would ban the use of credit cards, checks and electronic fund transfers for Internet gambling. Bets placed with a legal casino operation within a bettor's state would be exempt, as would operations on Native American-owned land. Horse racing, a sport that operates some Web betting sites, would also be exempt, which has drawn opposition from dog tracks and jai alai arenas.
Opponents of Goodlatte's measure mocked his proposal last week. "There is a simple principle here," said Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "If American citizens want to gamble, let them. Why is it our business?"
The debate got so protracted that the Judiciary Committee put off its scheduled vote, which is just as well, according to gambling industry analysts. They say Goodlatte's measure would be unenforceable anyway.
"The genie of Internet gambling is never going to be put back in the bottle," said Michael Pollock, the publisher of Gamingobserver.com. "This bill addresses yesterday's issue, not tomorrow's."
Pollock, a former official with New Jersey's Casino Control Commission, joined others in the industry to suggest that government regulate the industry, which would ensure the fairness of games, collect taxes and keep children away from the virtual casinos.
Still, some U.S. casino operators are hedging their bets. MGM Mirage has taken out a license for an online casino on the Isle of Man, an island off England, and Playboy Enterprises is already in the online business with Ladbroke's, the British bookmaker. But their joint venture, based in Gibraltar, won't take bets from U.S. residents.