1999: The United Nations has proposed an email tax to subsidize internet connectivity in the two-thirds world. The latest rumor is that the United States government also wants to tax email.
From the perspective of the taxman, email has got to look like one incredible revenue opportunity.
But from the perspective of an email user who is already paying internet connection fees, an email tax chills the bones.
Taxing email would be a logistical nightmare. First, you need to determine how you will tax it. Do you charge for each message sent? Or do you charge based on the number of recipients? Either way, do you charge a per piece rate or base it on the size of the message (including attachments)?
It’s a sticky business. I’m guessing the government would want to tax email by the number of recipients and by the size of the message (enclosures included). After all, this would maximize income.
But we haven’t even come to the hard part yet: How do they measure email to tax it? For instance, should email that is sent between workers in the same office be taxable? (If it never goes out over the internet, I’d have to say it shouldn’t be taxable.)
And who would be responsible for counting messages, recipients, and message size? Would it even be possible to require all mail servers to do this?
Sure, we’d all love to see the spammers go out of business. Even at a fraction of a penny per message, sending thousands or millions of unwanted messages would quickly become costly.
At the same time, free email would become a thing of the past. Who would provide you with free email when they have to pay for each message you send?
Likewise, free email lists (listservs) would be history. You’d have to pay something to join any moderately busy email list.
Finally, it would completely change the way we use email. Fewer jokes (okay, maybe not a bad thing). Less quick notes between home and office.
Of course, the government would try to justify taxing email by analogy with snail mail. We’ve paid for postage to have letters delivered for ages; why should email be exempt?
Further, they will argue, the internet was underwritten by the government. We shouldn’t be able to use it for free.
But that simply isn’t so.
First, because we are paying to use the internet. We pay fees to our internet service provider. These fees, in turn, are used to keep their systems running, to connect their computers to the internet, and to keep the internet growing.
Second, the analogy with snail mail is flawed. No Postal Service employee picks up or delivers email. No Post Office sorts and routes electronic messages to their final destination. No trucks transport bags of email from place to place.
In most cases, we either pay an internet service provider to handle our email, run our own mail server, or find someone to provide us with free email in exchange for seeing some ads.
One way or another, we’re paying for the connection to the internet and the hardware that moves the email from one mailbox to another. The internet connection charges we pay are what keeps the internet alive and well.
Although taxing email may strike some as a good idea, the simple fact is that we’re already paying fees to use the internet – and implementing an email tax would be a logistical nightmare.
For the record, the United Nations quickly retreated from it email tax proposal once word of it reached the public.