E-Commerce Taxation & Regulation

[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, TechFreedom joined a coalition of over 40 organizations from across the country in urging Senate leadership to permanently ban taxes on Internet access. In a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid, the coalition voiced support for a permanent extension of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which bans states and localities from imposing Internet access taxes and discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce. The bill is currently embedded in H.R. 644, the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act.

The letter reads:

After decades of progress in connecting more Americans to the Internet, the lack of a permanent ban on Internet access taxes could reverse this progress. Numerous studies continue to show that cost remains an obstacle to Internet access and, if taxes on the Internet go up, even fewer people will be able to afford to go online. This would impede our nation’s long held goal of universal Internet access.

Americans’ broadband bills shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips by Senators who want to impose online sales taxes,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “For 17 years, the Internet access tax ban has helped encourage broadband adoption and investment. If Senators want an online sales tax, then pass it on the merits — but handcuffing a broadband tax with sales tax is irresponsible. Consumers are already facing the prospect of higher bills, as the FCC is likely to soon impose universal service fees on broadband as part of its Title II regime imposed in the name of ‘net neutrality.’ Let’s not make that problem worse. The Senate should act quickly to end the uncertainty and pass permanent, Internet tax freedom.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking a more active interest in state and local barriers to entry and innovation that could threaten the continued growth of the digital economy in general and the sharing economy in particular. The agency recently announced it would be hosting a June 9th workshop “to examine competition, consumer protection, and economic issues raised by the proliferation of online and mobile peer-to peer business platforms in certain sectors of the [sharing] economy.” Filings are due to the agency in this matter by May 26th. (Along with my Mercatus Center colleagues, I will be submitting comments and also releasing a big paper on reputational feedback mechanisms that same week. We have already released this paper on the general topic.)

Relatedly, just yesterday, the FTC sent a letter to Michigan policymakers about restricting entry by Tesla and other direct-to-consumer sellers of vehicles. Michigan passed a law in October 2014 prohibiting such direct sales. The FTC’s strongly-worded letter decries the state’s law as “protectionism for independent franchised dealers” noting that “current provisions operate as a special protection for dealers—a protection that is likely harming both competition and consumers.” The agency argues that:

consumers are the ones best situated to choose for themselves both the vehicles they want to buy and how they want to buy them. Automobile manufacturers have an economic incentive to respond to consumer preferences by choosing the most effective distribution method for their vehicle brands. Absent supportable public policy considerations, the law should permit automobile manufacturers to choose their distribution method to be responsive to the desires of motor vehicle buyers.

The agency cites the “well-developed body of research on these issues strongly suggests that government restrictions on distribution are rarely desirable for consumers” and the staff letter continues on to utterly demolish the bogus arguments set forth by defenders of the blatantly self-serving, cronyist law. (For more discussion of just how anti-competitive and anti-consumer these laws are in practice, see this January 2015 Mercatus Center study, “State Franchise Law Carjacks Auto Buyers,” by Jerry Ellig and Jesse Martinez.) Continue reading →

Earlier this week I posted an essay entitled, “Global Innovation Arbitrage: Commercial Drones & Sharing Economy Edition,” in which I noted how:

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.

That essay focused on how actions by U.S. policymakers and regulatory agencies threatened to disincentivize homegrown innovation in the commercial drone and sharing economy sectors. But there are many other troubling examples of how America risks losing its competitive advantage in sectors where we should be global leaders as innovators looks offshore. We can think of this as “global innovation arbitrage,” as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has aptly explained:

Think of it as a sort of “global arbitrage” around permissionless innovation — the freedom to create new technologies without having to ask the powers that be for their blessing. Entrepreneurs can take advantage of the difference between opportunities in different regions, where innovation in a particular domain of interest may be restricted in one region, allowed and encouraged in another, or completely legal in still another.

One of the more vivid recent examples of global innovation arbitrage involves the well-known example of 23andMe, which sells mail-order DNA-testing kits to allow people to learn more about their genetic history and predisposition to various diseases. Continue reading →

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, discusses how Overstock.com became one of the first online retail stores to accept Bitcoin. Byrne provides insight into how Bitcoin lowers transaction costs, making it beneficial to both retailers and consumers, and how governments are attempting to limit access to Bitcoin. Byrne also discusses his project DeepCapture.com, which raises awareness for market manipulation and naked short selling, as well as his philanthropic work and support for education reform.

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[The following essay is a guest post from Dan Rothschild, director of state projects and a senior fellow with the R Street Institute.]

As anyone who’s lived in a major coastal American city knows, apartment renting is about as far from an unregulated free market as you can get. Legal and regulatory stipulations govern rents and rent increases, what can and cannot be included in a lease, even what constitutes a bedroom. And while the costs and benefits of most housing policies can be debated and deliberated, it’s generally well known that housing rentals are subject to extensive regulation.

But some San Francisco tenants have recently learned that, in addition to their civil responsibilities under the law, their failure to live up to some parts of the city’s housing code may trigger harsh criminal penalties as well. To wit: tenants who have been subletting out part or all of their apartments on a short-term basis, usually through web sites like Airbnb, are finding themselves being given 72 hours to vacate their (often rent-controlled) homes.

San Francisco’s housing stock is one of the most highly regulated in the country. The city uses a number of tools to preserve affordable housing and control rents, while at the same time largely prohibiting higher buildings that would bring more units online, increasing supply and lowering prices. California’s Ellis Act provides virtually the only legal and effective means of getting tenants (especially those benefiting from rent control) out of their units — but it has the perverse incentive of causing landlords to demolish otherwise useable housing stock.

Again, the efficiency and equity ramifications of these policies can be discussed; the fact that demand curves slope downward, however, is really not up for debate.

Under San Francisco’s municipal code it may be a crime punishable by jail time to rent an apartment on a short-term basis. More importantly, it gives landlords the excuse they need to evict tenants they otherwise can’t under the city’s and state’s rigorous tenant protection laws. After all, they’re criminals!

Here’s the relevant section of the code:

Any owner who rents an apartment unit for tourist or transient use as defined in this Chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any person convicted of a misdemeanor hereunder shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period of not more than six months, or by both. Each apartment unit rented for tourist or transient use shall constitute a separate offense.

Here lies the rub. There are certainly legitimate reasons to prohibit the short-term rental of a unit in an apartment or condo building — some people want to know who their neighbors are, and a rotating cast of people coming and going could potentially be a nuisance.

But that’s a matter for contracts and condo by-laws to sort out. If people value living in units that they can list on Airbnb or sublet to tourists when they’re on vacation, that’s a feature like a gas stove or walk-in closet that can come part-and-parcel of the rental through contractual stipulation. Similarly, if people want to live in a building where overnight guests are verboten, that’s something landlords or condo boards can adjudicate. The Coase Theorem can be a powerful tool, if the law will allow it.

The fact that, so far as I can tell, there’s no prohibition on having friends or family stay a night — or even a week — under San Francisco code, it seems that the underlying issue isn’t a legitimate concern about other tenants’ rights but an aversion to commerce. From the perspective of my neighbor, there’s no difference between letting my friend from college crash in my spare bedroom for a week or allowing someone I’ve never laid eyes on before do the same in exchange for cash.

The peer production economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot that needs to be worked out. Laws like those in San Francisco’s that circumvent the discovery process of markets prevent landlords, tenants, condos, homeowners, and regulators from leaning from experience and experimentation — and lock in a mediocre system that threatens to put people in jail for renting out a room.

Last week, the Mercatus Center released “Bitcoin: A Primer for Policymakers” by yours truly and Andrea Castillo. In it we describe how the digital currency works and address many of the common misconceptions about it. We also analyze current laws and regulations that may already cover digital currencies and warn against preemptively placing regulatory restrictions on Bitcoin that could stifle the new technology before it has a chance to evolve. In addition, we give several recommendations about how to treat Bitcoin in future.

As I say in the video that accompanies the paper, Bitcoin is still very experimental and it might yet fail for any number of reasons. But, one of those reasons should not be that policymakers failed to understand it. Unfortunately, signs of misunderstanding abound, and that is why we wrote the primer.

Continue reading →

Sherwin Siy, Vice President of Legal Affairs at Public Knowledge, discusses emerging issues in digital copyright policy. He addresses the Department of Commerce’s recent green paper on digital copyright, including the need to reform copyright laws in light of new technologies. This podcast also covers the DMCA, online streaming, piracy, cell phone unlocking, fair use recognition, digital ownership, and what we’ve learned about copyright policy from the SOPA debate.

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Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center discusses his recent working paper with coauthor Brent Skorup, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector. Thierer takes a look at how cronyism has manifested itself in technology and media markets — whether it be in the form of regulatory favoritism or tax privileges. Which tech companies are the worst offenders? What are the consequences for consumers? And, how does cronyism affect entrepreneurship over the long term?

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Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.

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