A Terror Tariff on Technology?

by on August 18, 2004

Here in the U.S. we’re bogged down in determining whether the Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) applies to VoIP technology (the FCC unanimously ruled that it does, but a federal court will likely have the final word). In Canada, they’re debating who should pay for wiretapping. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police says it should be telephone users.

An article in the Halifax Herald reports that Canadian police want a surcharge of 25 cents on monthly telephone and internet bills. This charge would cover the costs of tapping into communications networks of suspected terrorists and criminals.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. We already have a federal security surcharge of up to $10 per airline flight (aka the September 11 Security Fee) which serves to fund air travel safety, why not a similar charge on users of communications services to help law enforcement get the bad guys? But there are important differences here. While it may indeed be efficient to place the costs of safety on the user of the service, wiretapping laws do not make telephone users themselves safer – instead, it’s the greater society that purportedly benefits. So this proposal is a tax, not a “user fee.” Economists will tell you that it is inefficient and costly to administer and collect lots of little taxes.

To be sure, taxpayers will pay through general taxes if telephone users do not. But check out this fantastic comment by a Canadian police officer:

“From our perspective, it’s a slippery slope to start paying for the execution of search warrants or any kind of court order.”

Let me get this straight. It’s a burden for your agency to use its own funds for its own activities…to do your job? Should there be a special tax levied on light bulb purchasers for red and blue lights on patrol cars or for consumers of two-way radios so that police forces can upgrade their communications networks?

This is just another example of unfairly burdening a technology. If this proposal gets traction in Canada, it may migrate south to our country (with all the phone taxes already on our bills, who would notice?).

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