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Can e-mails be taxed?

An Impossible Proposal?
Proponents of the idea of an e-mail tax assert that it would result in fewer spam e-mails in your inbox.
Proponents of the idea of an e-mail tax assert that it would result in fewer spam e-mails in your inbox.
© Mareen Fischinger/Corbis

What if lawmakers suddenly decided to repeal the Internet Tax Freedom Act? Would an e-mail tax suddenly be inevitable? And if such a tax did exist, how would it work, exactly?

There are some people who'd like to find out the answers to those questions. In early 2013, Gordon Wozniak, a city councilperson in Berkeley, Calif., reintroduced the idea of a bit tax to the American consciousness. He proposed a bit tax on the order of one penny per gigabit transferred through the Internet, as well as a "very tiny" tax on e-mail [source: Bradford]. His math is a bit on the fuzzy side, though, when he says such taxes would "probably" rake in billions of dollars per year.

That revenue could be diverted in part to the USPS to keep it afloat. Wozniak also said that such a tax would be a deterrent to e-mail spammers, who rely on the cheap ubiquity of e-mail to annoy and scam people all across the globe. In one swoop, the Postal Service is saved and spam could be virtually eliminated.

From a logical standpoint, it seems more than a little strange to divert revenue from e-mail taxes to the USPS. After all, the two services are entirely different.

But let's assume that lawmakers decided to try and impose this new tax. Logistically, it would be pretty challenging to tax people on the number of e-mails they sent. Because there are so many alternatives to e-mail, such as text messaging and social media sites, people could easily dodge taxes simply by choosing a different form of communication.

So to make a bit tax workable, proponents advocate for a simple blanket tax that could be tacked on to your monthly Internet service subscription. Whether you send one e-mail or 100,000 e-mails, the rate would be the same. That's certainly doable. But thanks to the Internet Tax Freedom Act, it's also currently illegal.

If the reaction to Wozniak's plan is any indication, the idea of overturning the act is pretty far-fetched. His ideas were met with almost universal scorn and derision. Lawmakers would be fighting against their own constituencies just to make such a tax legal, and by the time made any headway, they'd most likely be run out of office.

So if you're alarmed by headlines about e-mail taxes, you can ratchet down from red alert. Those taxes aren't going to happen anytime soon. And with new forms of online communication constantly in development, by the time any such taxes do become a reality, you may not care.