Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NY Times: The Case for Taxing Email

The New York Times Idea of the Day:  The Case for Taxing Email:

Today’s idea: A tax on e-mail would stem the deluge of spam — and both free up and help pay for the bandwidth that the Internet needs to grow.

The idea is from the British magazine Prospect:  We Need an eMail Tax:  A Penny Charge for Every eMail Would Stop Spam, and Fill the Empty Public Purse, by Edward Gottesman:

The time has come for a public sector remedy: a tax, perhaps no more than 2p, or 3c, on every email sent. Opponents will argue that collecting the tax is impossible or unfair. Yet the status quo is unworkable. Since early 2007 the global volume of spam has more than trebled. To stop this blizzard of unwanted messages, ISPs and most large businesses spend a sizeable chunk of their IT budget filtering out obvious junk. Despite this, most of us spend time each day clicking “delete”—and the deluge is getting worse. A unit tax on email would stop most spam. A peddler sending 1m messages a day hawking cross-border pharmaceuticals, for instance, would have to balance the uncertain revenues against the tax cost of £100,000 or $150,000 a week. Trying to con people out of money or their bank password would become a risky gamble. ...

Is there a downside? Like any excise tax, the move might be considered regressive. But for most users the cost would be offset by the ongoing falls in the price of broadband itself. The growth of blogs and social networks should head off claims that the tax would strangle internet freedom, as user-initiated website access will be unaffected. Above all, an email tax could safeguard the future of the internet itself. Peer-to-peer data transfers, video streaming and voice services like Skype demand ever greater bandwidth. When new capacity is needed, part of the tax proceeds could be used for investment. Best of all, the spam tax would remind us of a basic rule: pay for what you value. Email, like clean water and air, is not free. We may have a greater respect for our thoughts if we remember that sending them has a price.

(Hat Tip: Amitrai Barth.)

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I have been thinking related thoughts for years. A few comments, though:

Email is an application, rather than a resource - it would be more practical, and sensible, to tax TCP and UDP packets (chunks of internet traffic) than emails. This means much more tax on streaming video than email - email, especially spam, is a very low resource consumer.

Still, this could be difficult, and have very undesirable consequences. Imagine, by analogy, a tax on sidewalk users: a penny for every 10 feet walked/biked/etc. You see, I hope, both the difficulty in collecting, and the negative impact of successfully implementing a collection regime.

The backbone of the internet is like a city's network of sidewalks, an infrastructure maintained at public expense with very loose rules of usage and no direct charge to users (indeed no attempt to track or identify users). Changing that would change the very nature of the internet, just as it would change the very nature of sidewalks.

Posted by: Kristo Miettinen | May 29, 2009 3:53:04 AM

Is spam still really a problem? Since 2005, I've been using a gmail account for most of my personal emails. I hardly get any spam sent to my inbox, and only very little in my junk box. I get occasional ads, but I know that I subscibed to those newletters, and can cancel at any timee.

Posted by: Virgilio | May 28, 2009 11:35:50 PM

Tax e-mail and all that will happen is people will start using other software for the same purpose. IM, Facebook pages, websites, whatever--assuming a new "non e-mail" protocol isn't formed.

The only reason it's not a horrible idea is that we could actually use a new protocol that wasn't so susceptible to spamming, and one will never take off without a mass migration to a new protocol--something only the government could do. Accidentally.

Posted by: blake | May 28, 2009 6:38:42 PM

Oh yeah, a tax to stop spammers. Just like red light cameras are for safety and not revenue.

Posted by: Brian G. | May 28, 2009 10:57:48 AM

I think we should have a tax on any new tax ideas.

Posted by: Ulno | May 28, 2009 10:48:09 AM

This is merely an attempt to start taxing internet use.

The government can't find or stop the spammers, but somehow we're supposed to believe they will be able to force them to pay very costly email fees? Please.

Posted by: John | May 28, 2009 10:44:56 AM

Mr. Edward Gottesman:

Get yourself a Gmail account. It has something you probably haven't heard of, it's called a built in SPAM FILTER. Get your hands out of my pockets!

The Beatles wrote a song about your ilk.

Posted by: Jim | May 28, 2009 10:30:54 AM

"... would remind us of a basic rule: pay for what you value."

I agree with this in principle. Except that, if I'm going to pay anyone, it should be the people whose service I'm using (typically Google), NOT the government.
Goddamn loony statists really are out in full force these days.

Posted by: Anon | May 28, 2009 9:34:02 AM

A penny per email is several (i.e. four or five) orders of magnitude higher than the marginal cost of sending one. This witless but evergreen idea has been knocking around at least since I've had an email address (20 years) and is regularly shot down by people who actually know what they're talking about.

Posted by: David Gillies | May 28, 2009 8:10:58 AM

Wasn't this a widely derided hoax about two years ago?


Apparently someone thought it was a good idea.

Posted by: rosignol | May 28, 2009 6:17:17 AM

One can always find a decent reason to raise taxes endlessly, but never a valid reason to cut spending....EVER.

Posted by: DaveinPhoenix | May 28, 2009 6:08:39 AM

This is a perfect illustration of how woefully misinformed and out of touch the current decisionmakers are with the world around them. Senders of spam messages use offshore botnets, spoofed IP addresses, worm viruses that propagate through infected computers' address books, and trojan horses.

Any one of these measures is more than sufficient to evade any means the government has to identify and tax the sender of an e-mail. The only people who would pay such a tax are legitimate senders of e-mail, and the only people who would believe such a baseless argument in favor of this tax are the (regrettably numerous) aging boomers who often lack even basic familiarity with modern technology.

From "the internet is a series of tubes" to "HIV can spread through sweat" to this abject failure to understand one of the most important inventions in modern times, the evidence is piling up that the ignorance of those in power is hobbling America's ability to move forward.

Posted by: Me | May 28, 2009 6:06:17 AM

One million emails equal ONE video download.

Are you people stupid, or just ignorant, in shutting down emails as an economic and social backbone?

Posted by: Drew T | May 28, 2009 5:55:27 AM

For a second I thought they might also want to tax blog comments... ;-)

The economic answer to spam is to have the sender pay the RECIPIENT a penny for every email sent to them. If you and I interchange one email, the net cost is zero. If someone sends a commercial message, or one that doesn't get a reply, they pay a penny. No government involvement, though you could see people signing up for thousands of "free" email newsletters to collect the pennies. Newsletter senders would better qualify recipients, since there would be an actual cost for the email.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | May 28, 2009 5:51:42 AM

Wasn't this a widely derided hoax about two years ago?

Posted by: Sam Spade | May 28, 2009 5:44:17 AM

About five years ago, when I first starting getting spam, I set up a secondary free email address, solely to be used for when I sign up for something online, or buy anything, or any situation in which I'm giving my email address to someone I don't know. Any spam I get is routed there. It's quick, it's very easy, and it has virtually eliminated spam to my "real" email address. Anyone can do the same. To complain about spam in this day and age and to use it as an excuse to tax email is a joke. If you're getting too much spam, deal with it yourself, don't make me pay for it.

Posted by: John Taylor | May 28, 2009 5:37:22 AM

The Times and Prospect don't know what they're talking about. First, as has been pointed out, it's trivial to forge the "From" and "Reply-To" lines in email. Second, spammers don't send email themselves. They spread viruses that take over unsecured computers and then listen for commands telling them, among other things, to start sending spam.

It's just the insatiable government looking for still more ways to take our money; don't bother trying to rationalize it.

Posted by: James | May 28, 2009 5:36:25 AM

I've heard this mentioned as a way to stop unsolicited phone calls as well. The way it was proposed, however, is that the receiver chooses whether or not to make the charge.

Posted by: 8 | May 28, 2009 5:35:27 AM

Some legit users will pay a lot, others will just make more use of Twitter or instant messages or some other form of communication. And if we can't find the spammers to get them to stop spamming, what makes you think we could find them to charge them a tax? This is a ridiculous idea, if your goal is to stop spam. On the other hand, if you want to steal more money from private citizens to distribute through bailouts to unions, this is a great way to do it.

Posted by: Ben | May 28, 2009 5:24:33 AM

This is really another dumb idea. Spammers look to hide their true origination. So, if a spammer manages to hijack a site, then who would pay the tax? Not the spammer. We don't know who he is. If we know who he is, we don't need a tax to stop him.

This is typical of the NYT: Suggest a tax with no idea of the consequences.


Posted by: Rick Caird | May 28, 2009 5:22:28 AM

Sigh. The NYT is recycling an argument made 10 years ago by Bill Gates. Anything favored by both Bill Gates and the NYT is likely to be a Really Bad Idea.

Posted by: Former Belgian | May 28, 2009 5:15:46 AM

Since most of the egregious spam comes from offshore I'm not sure how a tax on our end is supposed to stem the tide.

More likely it will just hurt consumers and legitimate businesses.

Posted by: Mama73 | May 28, 2009 4:53:55 AM

So if your computer has been taken over by a virus and is being used by spammers, you should pay a few cents per email until you get your infection cleared up? Good luck Grandma, hand over your Social Security check.

And what about the other large source of spam, computers in China or former Soviet Block countries? Good luck collecting a tax on them.

It's not like one day a spammer decides to open a Verizon account and starts sending out millions of emails. It's much more sophisticated than that.

Posted by: John Davies | May 28, 2009 4:46:37 AM

Let's examine this idea that a tax "would stem the deluge of spam". Our NYT writer glibly claims that
"e-mail addresses are easily identifiable by Internet service providers". This comes as a surprise to those of us in the real world, including government experts, who know how trivial it is for spammers to fake an email address and/or to send their spam from offshore servers or Trojan-hijacked PCs.

No, this tax would be paid by legitimate users, which is nothing but another grab at our wallets by the yahoos who spent us into this ever-deepening trillion-dollar-deficit hole.

Posted by: Paul in NJ | May 28, 2009 4:25:58 AM

Anything, ANYTHING, for a buck.

Those greedy !#"$%ers would tax anything they could get away with. Give us more money, more power, more more more!

And the Times will support it every time. When it will be renamed Pravda?

Posted by: Jane Doe | May 27, 2009 9:36:25 PM