JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There's growing support for a statewide Internet café crackdown. The cafés are operating legally, but some lawmakers have said they are basically gambling operations.
The people who run the Internet cafés said they are purely for entertainment and are no different than children's arcade games, only they're geared toward adults.
"It makes people happy. It's a place where you can come and relax and enjoy yourself," said Michelle Rager, who owns Cyber Café Easy Money on Blanding Boulevard.
Rager said the newest bill proposed by Florida lawmakers to shut down her business and others like it is ridiculous.
State Rep. Scott Plakon is filing a bill to make cyber cafés that offer cash prizes to customers who play games illegal. There's a similar bill in the Senate. In the bill, lawmakers call the acts gambling and say the operations are bad for the state.
Internet café owners disagree.
"It's entertainment, just like going to the movies," Rager said.
At Easy Money, customers buy a phone card that gives them credit for calling. They can use that card in sweepstakes machines to play games and can win cash prizes because of that. Rager said customers get to keep the phone cards, so they are purchasing a product.
One of the most popular sweepstakes cafés in the Jacksonville area is run by Allied Veterans of the World. Kelly Mathis, an attorney who represents the cyber café, said these types of sweepstakes follow all state and federal laws.
"There's been no court that has held them to be illegal," Mathis said.
He said the newest bills are aimed at making something that is legal illegal.
"They now want to try to prohibit anything that looks like or simulates gambling," Mathis said. "The appropriate analogy is banning simulated murder or killing on a video screen simply because actually killing somebody is illegal."
"There are so many of us that if you start closing us down, you're putting a lot of people out of work," Rager said.
The debate circulating around Internet cafés began about eight years ago, when lawmakers shut them down statewide. That ruling was overturned, making the cafés legal, according to current state statutes.