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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Tax the Internet?
February 26, 2013 - 9:53am

I predict that this entry will generate more comments than most.  I propose that we watch France closely on its plan to tax the Internet, because the United States might want to follow suit.  

On first reflex I could not imagine a stand more likely to unite cross sections of the political spectrum from libertarians to liberals than this one.  In all my days of work in IT I have never met a single person who did anything but reject any policy except the most hands-off ones regarding data networking.  Why should we change gears now?

Because it might be time to move through a developmental cycle onto the next stage.  I understand that in the early years of the public Internet, all policy lights had to be green to lay the most propitious ground for its growth technologically, economically, politically and culturally.  Hence the glory days of Barlow's Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Consequently section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (which provides immunity to Internet Service Providers for common torts such as defamation and libel).  Therefore the uproar over ideas such as charging a tax of $.01 for every email.  Or even the failure of the content industry and their principal trade groups for popular music and entertainment such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America to suggest compensation for infringement via a general Internet fund as was the case for digital tapes in the 1990s and is the case for Canada today.  Tax the electronic Wild West?  How UnAmerican!

For all intents and purposes, this green light policy was successful.  The United States, in concert with major U.S. research universities, created and bequeathed to the world a historic phenomenon which neither time nor tide could turn back at this juncture.  It is precisely that success that suggests thinking about next steps.  Established as the medium for content, commerce and communication, the Internet may now be expected to assume more obligations to give back to global society at large a measure of its collective wealth.  

I truly do not expect many to agree with me.  But may I suggest that we take a breath before reflexive reactions shut down the idea completely, if only for the sake of thinking through the relationships between technology and society and the responsibilities of corporations to the national and global economies that enrich their coffers.  It is no coincidence that the Internet and information economy has emerged with a sharp stratification of economic strata in the United States and globally.  Perhaps it is the how big economies grow, because in the Western world at least we have observed this pattern before in the emergence of agricultural and industrial trade economies in the modern era.

But there comes a time when that "take off" period becomes a burden rather than a boon for the public good.  Tremendous national debts, high unemployment rates and those disproportionate, sharpened class lines are acute symptoms that we are at the end an era.  We therefore stand at the precipice of a series of public policy choices about how to go forward.  Together with copyright and more general intellectual property right reform, regulation regarding anti-trust, consumer protection and enhanced user options for privacy -- along with myriad other concepts involving national debt, international jurisdiction and substantive law (not least about "hacking" and other matters of technical security), and global human rights and citizenship -- a tax on the Internet may become a component of a more mature approach to the twenty-first century information economy.  

The world will continue to enjoy the fruits of technical and business model innovations, but innovation is not limited to technology and markets alone.  We would all benefit from letting a thousand flowers bloom about social policy that integrates the Internet into larger global challenges.  The Internet, after all, is neither a toy nor something larger than the human world in which it exists.  I suggest we give a brand new meaning to "digital humanities," not as an academic discipline but as placing this technology wonder in the context of our thinking about how to resurrect and restructure the public good.

 

 

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