Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Would You Support an Email Tax?

I have an uncle who swears that he'd be willing to pay a couple of pennies every time he sends an email. His thinking is that if it actually costs money to send email messages, then most spammers would go out of business. While my uncle believes that such an "email tax" would be preferable to all of the spam we currently receive, is it a practical idea that policymakers should actually consider?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say, "of course not". Why would anybody actually prefer to pay for email when it has been free since its inception? Here's why. For those of us who not only have our inboxes clogged with spam everyday, but who've also even switched email accounts and/or providers because the problem got so out of control, an email tax might be an enticing solution. Certainly, the economic disincentive to spammers would greatly reduce the amount of spam on the internet, therefore some people may liken an email tax to paying a premium fee for better service.

From a policymaking perspective, legislators have already staked out their position on whether or not to intervene. The U.S. Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, rendering the sending of spam as an illegal activity if it was unsolicited, didn't have a clear mechanism for identifying the sender, and failed to provide an option for the user to opt-out of future mailings. Congress' justification for getting involved... the billions of dollars each year that spam costs our economy in terms of inefficiencies in time and resources.

But here's the rub. I still argue that my uncle is crazy, and here's why. First of all, when I mention that spam is already illegal, he retorts that that doesn't matter because the policy cannot be enforced. No kidding. But if that's the case, how would enforcing a tax on the number of emails sent be more easily accomplished? Most experts agree that such a task would be impossible on a practical level - harmonizing disparate tax laws from around the country and the world.

Second, keeping track of how many emails are being sent by each person raises a host of new problems. For instance, who's going to do the monitoring? The government? The internet service provider? The email hosting company? Maybe a new IRS-style auditting agency? I'm sure everyone would love that.

Or put it another way, who would you trust to monitor your email activity?

Third, the secondary effects of such a policy would be drastic. The way the Internet is designed, any data being sent over the infrastructure is read the same as any other data. In other words, a router doesn't distinguish whether something is an email message, a request to view a website, or music being traded. It's all ones and zeros. So in order to be able to distinguish whether something is an email message (and furthermore, whether it is spam), a fundamental change would have to occur in how the Internet itself is designed at the code layer. And if it were possible to ascertain what type of data was being sent, then you'd be looking at a very different Internet than what currently exists. Is such a revolution desirable simply to reduce a few junk emails?

Fourth, the public outrage would be so tremendous if an email tax was passed that it makes the notion politically impossible. People are used to emailing for free, and to suddenly make us pay for every single message sent would lead to armageddon.

This is all nevermind the moral dilemmas involved with passing an email tax - such as making it a tool for the rich, and exacerbating divides in existing social inequalities.

I could go on, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm already preaching to the choir. Perhaps the most striking thing about this "debate" is even that there is one. Let's toss this one up to crazy uncles :-)


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