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Antigua May Fight U.S. Online Gambling Ban Plan

As legislation moves forward in Congress to ban Internet gambling, one Caribbean island is concerned the proposed new law will destroy licensed online casinos operating on its shores, and deprive it from much-needed revenues.

Bloomberg reported Tuesday from Geneva that the nation of Antigua and Barbuda is threatening to make a World Trade Organization challenge to a U.S. plan that would criminalize online betting.

Internet gambling is experiencing dramatic growth, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, which says the market will reach $6 billion this year, and as much as, $10 billion by 2005.

Antigua, home to only 68,000 people, has more than 100 licensed online casino operators, which generate millions of dollars every year for the Antiguan government.

Several senators want a law that would criminalize online gambling barring American residents from using credit cards or online payments service, like PayPal, to make online bets.

Several U.S. banks have agreed not to process online gambling transactions, including Citigroup Inc. , Bank of America Corp. , FleetBoston Financial Corp. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

While there are questions just how many online casinos are in operation, and precisely how much money is bet online, one Antigua-based online casino operator says the NCAA men's basketball tournament is generating huge amounts of revenue.

BetWWTS.com issued a press release saying it "anticipates taking more than $25 million in wagers the company received on last year's NCAA tournament." BetWWTS.com is owned by World Wide Tele-Sports and says it is an offshore gaming company offering both Internet and telephone wagering "fully licensed and regulated in St. John's, Antigua since 1995."

Antigua, for its part, says that with the downturn in the tourism industry, the country has come to rely on revenues generated from licensing and taxing of online casinos on its territory. The online betting industry employs 3,000 people in Antigua, and officials say the U.S. would be in violation to its commitments under the WTO's commercial services agreement.

Officials from the U.S. and Antigua will meet on April 7th in Geneva in an effort to resolve the dispute. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement, then Antigua could potentially ask WTO judges to rule on the disagreement, a process that could take several years.