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Is it tea time again?


By Scott Bradner


Like the title thing in the 1958 Steve McQueen science fiction film "The Blob," Internet taxes are on the move again.  In the U.S., we have generally been free of taxation for Internet services and for goods and services purchased over the Internet.  But this hiatus may be coming to an end. 


Our freedom from these taxes is not based on any lack of attempts by the tax authorities.  They have been trying quite hard but have been blocked by two things.  First a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said states could not force retailers with no significant presence in the state (in those days it was mail order houses) to collect taxes on goods and services sold to people living in the state because the complexity of having to deal with the 7500 or so separate tax jurisdictions was too much to impose on the sellers.  Second, a series of federal laws that prohibited anyone from adding new taxes for Internet services. 


The current iteration of the federal law will expire this November unless it gets extended again but it does not block taxes on goods and services purchased over the Internet.  Those taxes are still blocked by the Supreme Court's ruling which could be dealt with by the passage of a new federal law that said it was OK to tax in spite of the complexity or by simplifying the tax chaos.  Many states are busily doing the latter.


A group of 31 states have been participating in the  "Streamlined Sales Tax Project" ( recently adopted a set of model tax rules which, if adopted by enough state legislatures, could pass the Supreme Court's simplification threshold.  The adoption of these simplified rules are far from a done deal since they override some county, city or local taxes and these folk will likely object.  And things may not stay "simple" for all that long because the model rules allow the states to add new taxes later, something I seriously doubt they will refrain from doing.


I would also expect that any taxes on Internet services would quickly become the general revenue gathering device that taxes on telephone services have become.  I also expect that such taxes would try to differentiate between different Internet services such as voice over IP, and in some case, be urged by the incumbent telco carriers, ostensibly for the sake of fairness but in reality to attempt to kill competing technology.


As you might expect the prospect of taxes on the Internet have brought out a quite wide range of opinions, from brick and mortar stores that see a need to even the playing field to the folk that think that all taxes are unconstitutional, one of whom wrote late last year that taxing out of state companies would be taxation without representation.    I seem to recall that phrase from somewhere in Boston's past.


It will be interesting to see what this tax-cutting administration will do if a bunch of states go through the simplification process and then demand to be able to collect some of the $1.5 to $50 billion, (depending on who you ask) of "lost" taxes next year.


disclaimer:  I expect the Harvard Business and Government schools have different opinions on taxes of all kinds but I did not ask them - the above musing is mine alone.