We all know how governments enjoy levying "sin taxes" on alcohol and tobacco, so it shouldn't be at all surprisingly that someone is now proposing to impose one on online porn viewing. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, (D-Ark.) is apparently going to drop a bill next week that would impose a federal excise tax on transactions with for-profit adult Web sites.
I am not about to pen a defense for those people who spend endless hours looking at dirty pictures online, but I really do believe this bill has got to be the silliest idea to come out of Congress in a long time. Specifically, it once again proves that most members of Congress have absolutely no appreciation for what sort of enforcement difficulties they are up against in terms of regulating the Net and online content.
After all, just because a website is for-profit, it doesn't mean it will be easy to impose such a tax scheme. The tax evasion possibilities here are endless, especially considering how much activity originates overseas. How will the tax be reported? What kind of enforcement regime will be necessary to even collect a small percentage of these taxes? In a world of anonymous electronic transactions, I just can't see how enforcement would work. I guess Congress could force credit card companies to somehow become their deputized policemen and make them figure out when people are viewing online porn. Of course, there are some serious privacy issues at stake there and there's still little chance that even the financial intermediaries will be able to track everybody down. Moreover, why should financial intermediaries be forced to become the henchmen of the State in terms of enforcing morality?
Of course, I'm just focusing on the enforcement problems with this measure. I haven't said a word about the many ways in which this is likely unconstitutional as well. The courts have struck down just about every other effort to regulate online content, so I have a difficult time believing that they'll allow this one to stand for very long. Taxes on speech have been found to be every bit as unconstitutional as direct speech controls. So this bill is doomed in my opinion.
(By the way, time for a shameless plug... This issue was the subject of my fourth book, Who Rules the Net? Internet Governance and Jurisdiction. Make sure to check our Robert Corn-Revere's chapter in this book if you are interested in learning more about this subject: "Caught in the Seamless Web: Does the Internet's Global Reach Justify Less Freedom of Speech?" Here's another version of it online.)