When Free Speech Isn't Free

Posted: Jun 02, 2007 12:01 AM
When Free Speech Isn't Free

The right to free speech is one of the most convoluted issues of our day. On one hand, liberals insist that every obscenity and pornographic display needs to be protected under the sacred mantle of free speech. Yet, on the other hand, they want to turn criticism of same sex marriage into a crime and public prayer into a cause for condemnation.

Oh, yeah—and some public officials also believe that free speech shouldn't really be free if you're using the Internet to communicate your ideas.

Here's the situation: In 1998, a law was enacted stating that local governments, by and large, cannot tax Internet access. This would include cable modems, DSL or digital subscriber lines, or Blackberry-type wireless transmission. While ordinarily I'm understandably leery of legislation coming out of Washington, this law made perfect sense, complemented our free enterprise system, and ensured that Internet users would not be taxed out of the primary public forum of our day.

But there's one problem: the law is scheduled to expire November 1. As a result, debate has re-ignited over whether the ban on Internet taxation should be made permanent. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), put it this way in a CNET news report: "If we could liken the Internet to a mall, a place where you can go in and purchase goods and services, and also liken it to a library, a place where you can go and pull a book, pull a resource, and obtain some information, why would we tax a person upon entering a mall or why would we tax a person upon entering the library?"

But state and local government lobbying groups are balking. They say that a permanent ban "deprives" them of revenue sources—in other words, they're being deprived of the hard-earned money of taxpayers. As Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) was quoted as saying, "Taxes always impact everything else in our economy. I would assume they've had a major impact in this area as well." Jordan is one of 66 House members with old-fashioned common sense who've co-sponsored the proposal for a permanent ban.

Simple economics states that, if you tax a product or service, consumption can understandably decrease. In other words, if you tax Internet service, you're going to see fewer people being able to afford it. That means that limousine liberals might be able to cruise the Information Superhighway with ease, but middle-class and lower-income folks would have a tough time getting on the on ramp.

In fact, economist Scott Mackey believes the ban on Internet taxation is good for the growth of the World Wide Web. Mackey was quoted on CNET News as saying, "A permanent moratorium will send a strong, pro-investment signal to those entrepreneurs that are looking to improve communications and commerce over the Internet."

I think the lesson in this is that some public officials on the local, state, and federal level are determined to tax anything that sits, moves, or beats the liberal news networks to the punch on breaking news stories. Mainstream journalists have said for a long time that bloggers represent a threat to traditional journalism—and so it only stands to reason that reporters and their buddies on Capitol Hill want to make life difficult for Joe Average Internet User. Hitting computer users with a frivolous tax is one way to do that. Thankfully, however, when it comes to this taxation plan, there are some members of Congress who are ready to press the delete button.