On November 17, 2011, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is conducting an oversight hearing to discuss the future of tribal Internet gaming. There are several witnesses from government regulatory agencies, tribal governments and gaming associations, and the gaming industry who will offer testimony regarding the use of the Internet to serve tribal gaming operations in the future. The Internet is a largely unregulated medium which has seen increased use by commercial interests to conduct business operations and exchanges. Recently, in the case of Comcast v. FCC, the federal Court has held that the FCC lacks the ability under the FCC’s ancillary authority in the Communications Act, to regulate Internet Service Providers like Comcast. In the Comcast case, the FCC attempted to prevent Comcast from using network management operations which allegedly excluded non-Comcast applications from its Internet network. Comcast challenged the assertion of FCC authority in regard to regulating the Internet under the Communications Act. Prior to this case, the FCC classified the Internet as an informational service as opposed to a common carrier like a traditional telephone company. Under the Communications Act and FCC regulations, a common carrier is subject to a wider range of FCC regulation than is an informational service. The decision by the Court in Comcast upheld the classification of the Internet as an informational service and as a result, the Court determined that the FCC had no authority to regulate the Internet, such that it could impose punitive action against an Internet Service Provider such as Comcast.
On a similar front, states are generally allowed a minimal role in regulation of the Internet. States are permitted to regulate the Internet only so far as the action to be regulated occurs entirely within the state and the action does not involve interstate commerce. Thus, many tribes are not subject to state regulatory jurisdiction when it comes to the Internet. A question which may be raised as a part of the discussion about to occur in the Senate this week should involve the ability of the states to regulate gaming if it occurs over the Internet on an Indian Reservation or gaming facility. The push to regulate Internet gaming may also raise questions about the Communications Act and whether it will have to be amended to allow federal agencies an expanded role in regulating the Internet. There are no Internet Service Providers who appear to be testifying at the upcoming Senate hearing and it would likely be prudent at some point to include them in future discussions. After all, it is the Internet Service Providers who will provide gaming operations with the connectivity to the Internet, service the Internet connections to ensure reliability and speed, and most importantly, provide the necessary Internet security to prevent cyber attacks or the loss of customer personally identifiable information.