E-Commerce Taxation & Regulation

The debate over the imposition of sales tax collection obligations on interstate vendors is heating up again at the federal level with the introduction of S. 1452, “The Main Street Fairness Act.” [pdf]  The measure would give congressional blessing to a multistate compact that would let states impose sales taxes on interstate commerce, something usually blocked by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the bill in the Senate along with Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Jack Reed (D-RI).  The measure is being sponsored in the House of Representatives by John Conyers (D-MI) and Peter Welch (D-VT). At this time, there are no Republican co-sponsors even though Sen. Mike Enzi was rumored to be a considered co-sponsoring the measure before introduction.

Without any Republicans on board the effort, the measure may not advance very far in Congress. Nonetheless, to the extent the measure gets any traction, it is worth itemizing a few of the problems with this approach. My Mercatus Center colleague Veronique de Rugy and I have done some work on this issue together in the past and we are planning a short new paper on the topic. It will build on this lengthy Cato Institute paper we authored together in 2003, “The Internet Tax Solution: Tax Competition, Not Tax Collusion.” The key principle we set forth was this: “Congress must.. take an affirmative stand against efforts by state and local governments to create a collusive multistate tax compact to tax interstate sales.” “It would be wrong,” we argued, “for members of Congress to abdicate their responsibility to safeguard the national marketplace by giving the states carte blanche to tax interstate commercial activities through a tax compact. The guiding ethic of this debate must remain tax competition, not tax collusion.” Continue reading →

That’s the question I take up in my latest Forbes column, “The Danger Of Making Facebook, LinkedIn, Google And Twitter Public Utilities.”  I note the rising chatter in the blogosphere about the potential regulation of social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter. In response, I argue:

public utilities are, by their very nature, non-innovative. Consumers are typically given access to a plain vanilla service at a “fair” rate, but without any incentive to earn a greater return, innovations suffers. Of course, social networking sites are already available to everyone for free! And they are constantly innovating.  So, it’s unclear what the problem is here and how regulation would solve it.

I don’t doubt that social networking platforms have become an important part of the lives of a great many people, but that doesn’t mean they are “essential facilities” that should treated like your local water company. These are highly dynamic networks and services built on code, not concrete. Most of them didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Regulating them would likely drain the entrepreneurial spirit from this sector, discourage new innovation and entry, and potentially raise prices for services that are mostly free of charge to consumers.  Social norms, public pressure, and ongoing rivalry will improve existing services more than government regulation ever could.

Read my full essay for more.

Do-Not-Track is not inconceivable itself. It’s like the word “inconceivable” in the movie The Princess Bride. I do not think it means what people think it means—how it is meant to work and how it is likely to offer poor results.

Take Mike Swift’s reporting for MercuryNews.com on a study showing that online advertising companies may continue to follow visitors’ Web activity even after those visitors have opted out of tracking.

“The preliminary research has sparked renewed calls from privacy groups and Congress for a ‘Do Not Track’ law to allow people to opt out of tracking, like the Do Not Call list that limits telemarketers,” he writes.

If this is true, it means that people want a Do Not Track law more because they have learned that it would be more difficult to enforce.

That doesn’t make sense … until you look at who Swift interviewed for the article: a Member of Congress who made her name as a privacy regulation hawk and some fiercely committed advocates of regulation. These people were not on the fence before the study, needless to say. (Anne Toth of Yahoo! provides the requisite ounce of balance, but she defends her company and does not address the merits or demerits of a Do-Not-Track law.)

Do-Not-Track is not inconceivable. But the study shows that its advocates are not conceiving the complexities and drawbacks of a regulatory approach rather than individually tailored blocking of unwanted tracking, something any Internet user can do right now using Tracking Protection Lists.

My latest Forbes column notes how “Taxes On Talking Are On the Rise Across the U.S.” with levies on mobile phones and devices skyrocketing.  I build my argument around data and arguments found in Dan Rothschild’s excellent recent Mercatus Center paper, which makes “The Case Against Taxing Cell Phone Subscribers,” as well as an important recent study by Scott Mackey, an economist and partner at KSE Partners LLP, which documents the growing burden of these wireless taxes and fees.

“Wireless users now face a combined federal, state, and local tax and fee burden of 16.3%, a rate two times higher than the average retail sales tax rate and the highest wireless rate since 2005,” Mackey finds. Mobile tax rates range from a high of 23.7% in Nebraska to a low of 6.9% in Oregon.  48 states have an average combined wireless tax rate above 11%.  These burdensome taxes on talking just don’t make any sense, argues Rothschild. “There is no economic justification for these high tax rates: reducing cell phone ownership is not a public policy goal, cell phone use by one customer does not affect other customers or other people, and these taxes fall disproportionately on lower-income households.”

You can read my entire essay here, but also make sure to re-read Dan Rothschild’s guest post here at the TLF on the issue. It’s much better than my own treatment.  For me, the key point is this: If the primary policy goal in this arena is to build out a first-class communications and data infrastructure and make sure all Americans have access to it, discriminatory taxes on wireless services and networks are highly counter-productive. Policymakers should hang up on the Talking Tax.

San Francisco, often the breeding ground for “interesting” public policy proposals, decided recently to back off its mandate the would have required retailers of cell phones to label them with radiation levels and pass out material explaining the level of SAR in each device (SAR= Specific Absorption Rate).

This has not been done anywhere else and faced stiff opposition from the wireless industry, which filed suit against the ordinance last year.

We’ve commented on the ridiculous nature of this ordinance before. Suffice to say, in the year since this issue hit, there has still been no evidence offered that cell phones pose any sort of carcinogenic threat. This great piece in the NY Times Magazine goes into more detail on the problems of testing this hypothesis but also highlights the common error of confusing causality with coincidence. The author’s main point: Continue reading →

I was pleased to see columnists George Will of The Washington Post and Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe take on the Internet sales tax issue in two smart recent essays. Will’s Post column (“Working Up a Tax Storm in Illinois) and Jacoby’s piece,”There’s No Fairness in Taxing E-Sales,” are both worth a read. They are very much in line with my recent Forbes column on the issue (“The Internet Tax Man Cometh,”) as well as this recent oped by CEI’s Jessica Melugin, which Ryan Radia discussed here in his recent essay “A Smarter Way to Tax Internet Sales.”

I was particularly pleased to see both Will and Jacoby take on bogus federalism arguments in favor of allowing States to form a multistate tax cartel to collect out-of-state sales taxes.  Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) will soon introduce the “Main Street Fairness Act,” which would force all retailers to collect sales tax for states who join a formal compact. It’s a novel—and regrettable—ploy to get around constitutional hurdles to taxing out-of-state vendors. Sadly, it is gaining support in some circles based on twisted theories of what federalism is all about. Real federalism is about a tension between various levels of government and competition among the States, not a cozy tax cartel.

Will rightly notes that “Federalism — which serves the ability of businesses to move to greener pastures — puts state and local politicians under pressure, but that is where they should be, lest they treat businesses as hostages that can be abused.” And Jacoby argues that an “origin-based” sales tax sourcing rule is the more sensible solution to leveling the tax playing field: Continue reading →

Consumers are buying more and more stuff from online retailers located out-of-state, and state and local governments aren’t happy about it. States argue that this trend has shrunk their brick and mortar sales tax base, causing them to lose out on tax revenues. (While consumers in most states are required by law to annually remit sales taxes for goods and services purchased out of state, few comply with this practically unenforceable rule).

CNET’s Declan McCullagh recently reported that a couple of U.S. Senators are pushing for a bill that would require many Internet retailers to collect sales taxes on behalf of states in which they have no “nexus” (physical presence).

In his latest Forbes.com column, “The Internet Tax Man Cometh,” Adam Thierer argues against this proposed legislation. He points out that while cutting spending should be the top priority of state governments, the dwindling brick and mortar tax base presents a legitimate public policy concern. However, Thierer suggests an alternative to “deputizing” Internet retailers as interstate sales tax collectors:

The best fix might be for states to clarify tax sourcing rules and implement an “origin-based” tax system. Traditional sales taxes are already imposed at the point of sale, or origin. If you buy a book in a Seattle bookstore, the local sales tax rate applies, regardless of where you “consume” it. Why not tax Net sales the same way? Under an origin-based sourcing rule, all sales would be sourced to the principal place of business for the seller and taxed accordingly.

Origin-based taxation is a superb idea, as my CEI colleague Jessica Melugin explained earlier this month in the San Jose Mercury News in an op-ed critiquing California’s proposed affiliate nexus tax:

An origin-based tax regime, based on the vendor’s principal place of business instead of the buyer’s location, will address the problems of the current system and avoid the drawbacks of California’s plan. This keeps politicians accountable to those they tax. Low-tax states will likely enjoy job creation as businesses locate there. An origin-based regime will free all retailers from the accounting burden of reporting to multiple jurisdictions. Buyers will vote with their wallets, “choosing” the tax rate when making decisions about where to shop online and will benefit from downward pressure on sales taxes. Finally, brick-and-mortar retailers would have the “even playing field” they seek.

Congress should exercise its authority over interstate commerce and produce legislation to fundamentally reform sales taxes to an origin-based regime. In the meantime, California legislators should resist the temptation to tax those beyond their borders. Might we suggest an awards show tax?

Continue reading →

So a few weeks ago I hit up Adam Thierer, who has done and is continuing to do great work on all things regulation, on some materials for a project I was working on regarding the precautionary principle in the digital space. Turns out Adam was in the middle of his own Digital Precautionary Principle piece as well. I’ll take our simpatico as a sign that this phenomenon may actually be taking place and that I’m not paranoid. (If you haven’t read his earlier piece on TLF, please do so).

While my piece on DPP is coming, hopefully this week, I’ll start things off with my article in today’s RealClearMarkets.com on regulations and risk and how regulating agencies are engaging in traditional “risk aversion behavior” to the detriment of the risk takers (aka entrepreneurs) in the private market. A smarter approach to regulating would incorporate both benefits and risks of NOT regulating. So many times the discussion is geared towards the notion that something has to be done, so how can we minimize the negative impacts, rather than, should we be doing anything at all or should we encourage the trial and error mechanisms that markets utilize?

While the piece isn’t targeted directly at the technology industry, I think it can apply there just as much as any other industry.


Yesterday the FBI effectively [shut down](http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/156429-fbi-shuts-down-online-poker-sites) three of the largest gambling sites online and indicted their executives. From a tech policy perspective, these events highlight how central intermediary control is to the regulation of the internet.

Department of Justice lawyers were able to take down the sites using the same tools we’ve [seen DHS use](http://techland.time.com/2011/02/17/operation-protect-our-children-accidentally-shutters-84000-sites/) against alleged pirate and child porn sites: they seize the domain names. Because the sites are hosted overseas (where online gambling is legal), the feds can’t physically shut down the servers, so they do the next best thing. They get a seizure warrant for the domain names that point to the servers and [force the domain name registrars](http://pokerati.com/2011/04/15/poker-panic-11-update-on-domain-name-seizures/) to point them instead to a government IP address, such as []( The most popular TLDs, including .com, .net, .org, and .info, have registrars that are American companies within U.S. jurisdiction.

Another intermediary point of control for the federal government are payment processors. The indictments revealed yesterday relate to violations of the [Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act](http://www.firstamendment.com/site-articles/UIEGA/), which makes it illegal for banks and processors like Visa, MasterCard and PayPal to let consenting adults use their money to gamble online. According to the DOJ, in order to let them bet, the poker sites “arranged for the money received from U.S. gamblers to be disguised as payments to hundreds of non-existent online merchants purporting to sell merchandise such as jewelry and golf balls.” ([PDF](http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2011/04/scheinbergetalindictmentpr.pdf))

Now, imagine if there were no intermediaries.

[In my TIME.com Techland column today, I write about Bitcoin](http://techland.time.com/2011/04/16/online-cash-bitcoin-could-challenge-governments/), a completely decentralized and anonymous virtual currency that I think will be revolutionary.

>Because Bitcoin is an open-source project, and because the database exists only in the distributed peer-to-peer network created by its users, there is no Bitcoin company to raid, subpoena or shut down. Even if the Bitcoin.org site were taken offline and the Sourceforge project removed, the currency would be unaffected. Like BitTorrent, taking down any of the individual computers that make up the peer-to-peer system would have little effect on the rest of the network. And because the currency is truly anonymous, there are no identities to trace.

And if a P2P currency can make it so that there is no fiscal intermediary to regulate, how about a distributed DNS system so that there are no registrars to coerce? This is something Peter Sunde of Pirate Bay fame [has been working on](http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-12/02/peter-sunde-p2p-dns). These ideas may sound radical and far-fetched, but if we truly want to see an online regime of “[denationalized liberalism](http://techliberation.com/2010/11/28/mueller%E2%80%99s-networks-and-states-classical-liberalism-for-the-information-age/),” as Milton Mueller puts it, then getting rid of the intermediaries in the net’s infrastructure might be the best path forward.

Again, check out [my piece in TIME](http://techland.time.com/2011/04/16/online-cash-bitcoin-could-challenge-governments/) for a thorough explanation of Bitcoin and its implications. I plan to be writing about it a lot more and devote some of my research time to it.

Over at [Neighborhood Effects](http://neighborhoodeffects.mercatus.org/), the Mercatus Center’s state and local policy blog, my colleague Dan Rothschild [compares wireless taxes to sin taxes](http://neighborhoodeffects.mercatus.org/2011/03/14/cell-phones-cigarettes/). His analysis is too good not to reprint here in large part:

The purpose of taxes is to raise money for necessary governmental functions. To that end, economists frequently prescribe that rates be low and broad in order to minimize the impact on consumers’ behavior — so-called tax neutrality. This is because taxation should be about raising revenue, not changing behavior.

Some economists tweak this prescription through the Ramsey Rule, which holds (in a nutshell) that the more influenced by tax rates consumers are (demand elasticity) the less something should be taxed (and vice versa).

Sin taxes are the opposite; they’re about reducing a behavior that policy makers judge to be morally offensive (like many people view smoking).

Relatedly, Pigouvian taxes seek to bring the costs to society (the social cost) in line with the costs born by a buyer. (For instance, some people advocate higher alcohol taxes on the theory that drinkers impose costs on others, though this argument is fraught with difficulties.)

Cell phone taxes above regular sales taxes levied by states and localities do not fit any of the four rationales provided here. On the one hand, taxing them at over twenty percent of a user’s bill is hardly neutral. Nor does it likely fit the Ramsey Rule prescription; consumers respond to cell phone taxes by buying less of it or by avoiding taxes by pretending to move. (Just look around you at how consumer takeup and use of cell phones has changed as prices have fallen over the last decade.) Cell phones are not sinful or offensive. And there’s no serious case to be made that the social cost of cell phones exceeds the cost born by users. In short, by any principle of public finance, high cell phone taxes are a bad bad bad idea.

Now here’s hoping he takes this awesome analysis and turns it into a paper!