Wozniak’s email tax: Good sense or nonsense?

Gordon Wozniak: wants to slow the process down

Gordon Wozniak: So-called bit tax could help fund “vital functions” of the post office. Photo: Lance Knobel

Earlier this week, readers reacted with skepticism after Berkeley City Councilman Gordon Wozniak suggested that taxing email might be one way to raise money for the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service.

Wozniak told the council: “There should be something like a bit tax. I mean a bit tax could be a cent per gigabit and they would still make, probably, billions of dollars a year… And there should be, also, a very tiny tax on email,” perhaps one-hundredth of a cent. He said this would discourage spam and not have much impact on the typical Internet user. Wozniak went on to suggest a sales tax on internet transactions that could help, in part, fund “vital functions that the post office serves.”

One Berkeleyside Twitter follower called the idea “unworkable insanity.” Wrote another: “This is just insane. Does the esteemed councilman have the first clue how the Internet works?”

But there’s a history to this idea, however outlandish as it might sound to some. 

The United Nations Development Program examined such a tax in its 1999 Human Development Report, Globalization With a Human Face, as a way to fund “the global communications revolution.” UNDP calculated that in 1996, such a tax would have raised $70 billion globally.

The New York Times took a brief look at the concept in 2009. Summing up an opinion piece by lawyer Edward Gottesman in the British magazine Prospect (behind a paywall), The Times said Gottesman thought such a tax could be used “to finance the expansion of bandwidth that the Web desperately needs.” He had suggested charging “a few cents per e-mail to cut down on the estimated 90 percent of it that is unwanted spam.”

“Opponents will argue that collecting the tax is impossible or unfair. Yet the status quo is unworkable,” wrote Gottesman. “Since early 2007 the global volume of spam has more than trebled. To stop this blizzard of unwanted messages, ISPs and most large businesses spend a sizeable chunk of their IT budget filtering out obvious junk. Despite this, most of us spend time each day clicking ‘delete’—and the deluge is getting worse. A unit tax on email would stop most spam. A peddler sending 1m messages a day hawking cross-border pharmaceuticals, for instance, would have to balance the uncertain revenues against the tax cost of £100,000 or $150,000 a week. Trying to con people out of money or their bank password would become a risky gamble.”

Advocates of such a tax say that ISPs could levy the tax as part of the monthly bill they charge users.

Harvard Law School’s Jonathan Zittrain, who specializes in cyberlaw and Internet governance, told Berkeleyside today that an email tax was a “terrible idea.”

Caption goes here

Zittrain: “Bad in theory, unworkable in practice.” Photo: Giorgio Montersino

“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 non-starter. 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.”

On Wednesday, Wozniak said that, though he’s no expert on Internet taxes, he thinks the idea is worth serious consideration.

“Since many billions of emails are sent every day, an email tax could raise substantial sums,” he said, via email. “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.”

He went on to say that, currently, an email tax is banned by Congress, so a major, top-level policy shift would have to occur before the idea could be put into practice.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Internet Tax Freedom Act “to promote and preserve the commercial, educational, and informational potential of the Internet,” according to Wikipedia. The law forbids federal, state and local governments from taxing web access and “imposing discriminatory Internet-only taxes such as bit taxes, bandwidth taxes, and email taxes.”

The law has been extended several times since its inception, and currently includes a moratorium through November 2014. A commission authorized by the 1998 law was charged with studying national tax policy related to the Internet; its final report opposed Internet taxation, and took a variety of other policy positions.

Conflict alert: Berkeleyside sends out nearly 4,000 emails a day to subscribers to our daily newsletter (to say nothing of the many emails the Berkeleyside staff sends each day). At Wozniak’s rate, our daily email would be taxed about $125 a year.

[Editor's note: Lance Knobel contributed to this story.]

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  • Robertjm

    Email, by literal definition, is an internet protocol. Anything sent through an internal server, which is what a direct Facebook message would not be considered email. HOWEVER, the email message that Facebook sends to you indicating you have received a direct message would be though.

  • Robertjm

    Not being in the Berkeley City Council chambers when this was apparently discussed, it’d be great to understand exactly how Wozniak brought this idea up. Was it part of a council discussion on a proposed tax? Was it part of a “Good of the City” where council members can speak their mind on any subject?

  • ROKnockz

    I’d rather use e-mail for free, as it is now. Not only is it free, I don’t have to go anywhere to use it, it’s instant, and it’s much easier to manage.

  • The_Sharkey

    They get elected for the same reasons that Congress and the Senate are constantly staffed with politicians nobody likes — Because the alternatives are usually much worse.

  • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

    It was part of a discussion on the future of the Main Post Office in downtown Berkeley, which the USPS plans to sell (although they would then open a post office downtown in leased space). Wozniak’s comments on the tax were made in passing, to indicate one way to put the USPS on sounder financial footing.

    Clearly, he did not suggest this would be a Berkeley tax. It was a suggestion for how the issue could be considered on a national or even international level. As our story makes clear, he’s not the first to suggest such a tax.

  • guestwho2

    They are most likely fully baked.

  • Bill Cole

    There is no lack of research, there’s just a spectacular degree of ignorance of how email works, leading to a widespread belief that everyone shares that ignorance and that there have never been any efforts to devise a workable system of email postage.

    9 years ago, Bill Gates pronounced a death sentence on spam, giving it 2 years to live. That declaration was reliant on the Microsoft research project known as “Penny Black” which focused on ways to make senders pay to send email. The idea was not new in 2003 and generated ridicule from the non-MS email community at the time. Aside from having pronounced their research complete over 4 years ago, very little has been heard from the Penny Black folks. Microsoft has made major contributions to the spam-fighting cause, but those are primarily in the areas of repairing the worst flaws in their software and waging legal wars on the operators of spamming botnets. Spam failed to show up for its appointment with Mr. Gates, and no new execution date has been announced by him or his successors at MS.

    10 years ago, the Internet Research Task Force established an Anti-Spam Research Group, in which I have been a minor participant. That group has had some useful spin-offs, none of which originate in the MANY “sender pays” ideas that have been brought to it with vague hand-waving by people who really don’t understand email. This week the ASRG Chair announced that it will be closing down, as there has been little activity there for some time, with the latest flurry being response to the latest newbie with a vague sender-pays idea, explaining how the idea is both very old and definitively discredited.

  • http://www.facebook.com/martin.lysons Martin Lysons

    A tax on email to raise money for the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service?
    If only we had imposed a tax on automobiles to save the horse & buggy industry…
    Or a tax on VHS tapes to save Betamax…

    Or a tax on CDs to save records…

    Maybe this guy’s on to something! Maybe it’s not too late to impose a tax on MP3s to save CDs, or a tax on cell phones to save pay phones…

  • http://twitter.com/aergern Ben Rosenberg

    Repeal the 2006 law stating the USPS has to fund 75 years of pensions in 10 years and none of this nonsense would be needed. How about calling up the Senate and House members such as Feinstein and Darryl Issa and TELLING them this. Taxing another mode of communication is not the way to go.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Lee/100002164448994 James Lee

    Are we surprised? I mean, it’s from a guy who help make Apple….. I’m surprised he’s not suing everyone for copyright infringement because Apple invented emails.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harry-Johnson/100002391643496 Harry Johnson

    Donald: You have obviously never been to Berkeley.. they would elect a Quiche to city council if they could… its not known nation wide as Bezerkeley for ‘nuthin. Even in California it is considered the nuttiest City of all.. It Makes San Francisco look down right sane LOL.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harry-Johnson/100002391643496 Harry Johnson

    I just put my return to sender stamp on it and stick it in a post box.. I may get it back.. I sitck it in again.. hey I dont care.. I’m happy to waste the postal services time.. even in bulk if necessary.. let them throw it away..

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harry-Johnson/100002391643496 Harry Johnson

    There’s another dinosaur that needs to go with the Post office.. Physical librariarie’s and paper books.

  • mark

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. You can always count on mentally ill libtards for a good laugh.

  • franhaselsteiner

    No, different Wozniak. This proposal is from a member of the Berkeley City Council.

  • Pamela Zuppo

    That’s an insane proposal and a waste of good paper. How about we address the real reason the USPS is having financial difficulty? Who voted that guy into the city council? Shame on you.

  • rocker686

    I hope that when he is up for re-election, you remember this idea and vote for someone else. As my father used to tell us (in a much less PC era), “don’t be stupid.” The biggest issue in Berkeley is saving the post office???

  • rocker686

    Do you mean get rid of paper books like dictionaries, Harry? The plural of library is “libraries”, and no apostrophe is necessary.

  • Flickman

    Is Gordon Wozniak a decendant of King George?

  • SL

    If you’re in the market for “a major, top-level policy shift,” you should look into reversing the Postal Accountability Act of 2006. This law has required USPS to pre-fund employee pensions for the next 75 years–something no other government or private agency is required to do. Without this ridiculous law, USPS would be about $1.5 billion in the black.

  • Guest

    Email tax = Nonsense

    Conservatives like Wozniak wish the USPS to fail:

    http://m.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/why-the-gop-is-killing-post-office/Content?gpt=1&oid=3480985

  • Steve Geller

    Great idea! But charge so much per email message, not byte volume. Also a bulk charge per so many messages sent from a single address.

  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    The one thing that I noticed about Berkeley. High real estate taxes, cost of permits often exceed the cost of repairs, and the city government does nothing to try conserve tax payers money. They love to come up with the most hair-brained ideal imaginable. How did he ever come up with such nonsense? Did this nibble mind ever look at the salaries of Postal employees? No! How was he suppose to implement a tax of services that crosses state lines? Last question, you may find egrious, but must be asked. I thought that people of Berkeley was smarter than to elect someone who thinks like a child.

  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    Spoken like a true “love it or leave it” supporter of Berkeley’s council. You have just confirmed that it’s not just the council that is wayward of reality.

  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    Apparently this council has no ideal of the waste within the Postal Service, and the pay and benefits enjoyed by the employees. Considering the silly ideals coming out of this council, I would say they should resign, the whole lot of them.

  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    This council is a classic example of a cluster fluke.

  • m

    Instead of putting the return to sender stamp on it and probably having the Post Office throw it out (I don’t think they return 4th-class mail), you could open it and see if it contains a postage-paid envelope. If it does, use it to return it with along with a message such as “Take me off your junk mail list.” That way the sender has to pay for it and probably will take you off the list.

  • ErvinKosch

    How will this reduce spam? Spam is generally done illegally from foreign countries or compromised computer (virals and trojan programs). If we follow the post office model a ‘digital stamp’ would have to be provided by the sender. How are you going to tax an illegitimate sender? What kind of ‘digital postal system’ are you going to have to set this up to monitor email and at what cost? What to keep people at the ‘digital post office’ from opening our email? Its not like we’ll see if the envelope is opened or not. If people stop using email (POP3/SMTP) and go to something like SMS (texting from your phone) or Facebook, what will you do then? The internet is a wide open area and anyone can set up a new protocol for sending email in a matter of minutes.

    On the charge per bit pricing: the federal government already does that. You’ve wading into very dangerous, or at least costly, waters to set that up.

    You have to ask yourself, why is your post office failing? Is it because people are using physical mail less and less because of convenience? Is your town’s population shrinking so there is less mail? Id so, why is it shrinking (taxes, jobs, aging?) Has the evil email taken too much of the post office’s business because email is cheaper, faster, more secure in many ways, and produces tons of less landfill? You can go to the ATM machine now gives out stamps and you can send packages at the local grocery store, is a physical post office really needed? Are there government regulations on retirement that is costing the post office nearly a billion dollars a year? Ask these question and then re-evaluate the postal system. It’s current form is broke, not email.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Paulinsky/100001711631525 Tony Paulinsky

    WTF? Is that all the libtards can think of…TAXING

  • Nat

    Typical California government official.

  • observer99

    Hmmm… Wozniak. No relation to Steve, one would assume. We who live in the real world owe this gentleman a note of thanks, though. We should appreciate his bringing this idea to our attention. To tax a new methodology in order to support an ancient and crumbling methodology is interesting. Somewhat regressive, but still interesting. Of course a tax on the internet could also be used to shore up other dying industries such as the Yellow Pages, and those who still work there. perhaps his council would like to purchase shares? And newspapers. Oh, well, the entire print media arena could benefit. While we’re at it, how about a new tax on automobiles to help to sustain the buggy whip industry? It’s almost dead. Pardon? Too late? Oh well. It was a thought.

  • lou

    The proposed “tiny tax” is the proverbial “foot in the door”, the “camel’s nose under the tent”. I just wish that junk snail mail senders paid regular rate. That would cut down on the enormous paper waste and save a lot of trees, as well as my own trils to the trash can.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.miller.12720100 Bryan Miller

    I already pay tax on phone and internet, kinda already a double taxation. wouldnt taxing the e-mail be a triple tax

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.miller.12720100 Bryan Miller

    sorry if i double posted but i couldnt see my post im guessing it went wrong. I pay tax for phone and internet. that is already kinda a double tax. wouldnt taxing e-mail be a triple tax?

  • Tobe Continue

    Venturebeat.com’s version of this news story suggested recipients of Email would pay the tax. Think of it, we don’t pay for mail that we receive in our mail boxes!
    Paying a ‘bit’ tax for incoming Email will make the government the greatest spammer’s of all time generating any revenue they desire. Beyond the fundamental stupidity of this tax, the politicians are crafty enough to screw us into paying for Email coming and going! …Absolutely unacceptable!!!