OffBeat

Why an e-mail tax is truly a ‘terrible idea’

mailboxNot all Wozniaks are brilliant.

Berkeley, Calif. City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak has suggested an email tax to raise money for the failing United States Postal Service. This seems a little like taxing cars to resuscitate the horse-and-carriage industry, but Wozniak thinks that it could discourage spam mail as well as support vital post office operations.

“Since many billions of e-mails are sent every day, an e-mail tax could raise substantial sums,” he said in an e-mail to the local blog Berkeleyside. “Most of the revenue raised could be used to fund the managing and maintaining the Internet Superhighway and a portion to subsidize snail mail. Think of it as analogous to the gas tax used to maintain our physical highways.”

Wozniak brought up the idea in response to the Berkeley City Council’s efforts to halt the sale of its downtown post office, which is in a historic building. The Postal Service said in a statement that the building would be sold due to a 26 percent drop in total mail volume over the past three years, brought about “by the diversion to electronic communication and business transactions.” Not to mention its forced payment of $5.5 billion a year into future retiree health benefit programs, and private companies like FedEx and UPS that do a better job.

Locals are fighting to keep the post office open by looking at ways for it to increase its revenue stream, such as renting part of the building to local businesses. Considering the Internet is the real culprit here, as well as the American population’s treacherous defection to digital communication, Wozniak’s solution is to tax it. Like cigarettes, bad habits need to be taxed.

While it may seem crazy to most rational human beings, the United Nations Development Program actually entertained the nation back in 1999 as a way to fund “the global communications revolution” and finance the expansion of the web. However, Jonathan Zittrain, an expert in cyberlaw and Internet governance, told Berkeleyside why this will never, ever work.

“To the extent that the cheap flow of flat rate first class mail has positive effects for society at large, the insistence that the Post Office be revenue-neutral may not make sense,” Zittrain said. “Taxing email as an alternative, however, is a terrible idea: Bad in theory and truly unworkable in practice. There have been proposals to see fees imposed on email by service providers — or recipients themselves — as a way of minimizing spam, but to impose an external tax on it when there are ready substitutes –Facebook messaging, anyone? — and when collection would be a nightmare, seems a nonstarter. There is no reason to tax electronic mail users in particular to save the Post Office, any more than it would make sense to tax coffee drinkers to do it.”

Oh, and let’s not forget about the Internet Tax Freedom Act which President Bill Clinton signed in 1998 which banned an e-mail tax. So the e-mail tax isn’t only stupid but is  also illegal. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. If the United States Postal Service goes under, there won’t be a nationalized way to send summer camp care packages or handwritten love letter. The Internet ruins lives again.

Photo credit: urbanwoodchuck/Flickr