THE ISSUE: County Commission votes unanimously to crack down on internet cafés.

OUR OPINION: Early action by commission will ensure public safety and prevent the reemergence of illegal gambling close to home.

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When they first appeared in the United States in the early 1990s, internet cafés, or cybercafés, emerged out of necessity – simply providing internet access to the public, mainly travelers, and charged a fee for such access at a time-based rate. In addition to the worldwide access in our society’s ever-increasing need to remain connected, these cafés may have also provided food and drink much like a traditional café.

Over the years with the ever-increasing access to the internet more available and the advent of the smartphone, it would have seemed these once-convenient accessibility spots had outgrown their necessity for our citizens. Instead, by 2010, a variation in the U.S. had emerged known as “sweepstakes parlors” that entered customers who paid for internet access into contests, which began catching the attention of local governments who saw this as a form of illegal gambling.

Today, in our county, the internet cafés are touted by their owners and operators as legal establishments, which provide internet access and entertainment to citizens. While that may be true for some of these establishments, others have morphed these cafés into halls filled with simulated gambling devices such as computer-operated games and slot machines that provide a payout to the player. 

This is no new issue: internet cafés and Florida law enforcement have been engaged in a tug of war for many years now. While the police are busy shutting down those found to allow illegal gambling, the internet cafés answer back by reemerging and relying on technicalities in frequently changing state laws to operate.

County Commissioner Jeff Kinnard brought the topic before the commission recently after being contacted by the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office and informed that these cafés had re-established in the county following previous shutdowns. The concern for the public is that the cafés allow illegal gambling, which in turn brings other nuisance behaviors and dangerous criminal activity including drugs and armed robbery.

These establishments are not isolated to Citrus County alone, of course. Throughout the state, there are internet cafés with similar simulated gambling devices, and several counties and cities are simply not standing for it. Nassau, Duval and Marion counties have made the move to look more closely at the issue and draft ordinances to crack down on illegal cafés. Last Tuesday, county commissioners voted unanimously to do the same and directed the county attorney to draft an ordinance with more severe fines and longer jail times for those found to be operating illegally.  

There are several opportunities to gamble legally in Florida, with some just a short drive away. These establishments have the proper security, licenses and safety policies in place for those who wish to take a chance with lady luck. The commission’s decision to act swiftly and clamp down on those operations allowing illegal gambling is the right move.