Sales tax and the internet
Apple recently announced their iTunes Music Store, which allows for the purchase of albums or individual tracks over the internet via the familiar iTunes software package. It sounds really cool, but I’m going to refrain from further comment until I’ve had a chance to try it out. I bring it up because, according to some early commentary, when you make a purchase iTunes first asks what location (i.e., state) you are buying from and then charges you state sales tax.
This is probably the correct thing to do. At my job, I occasionally ship purchases out of state for customers, and there are some complex rules for determining which state’s tax gets charged, but it usually works out to charging the sales tax for the destination state if we have a location there. Shipping to a state where we have no location involves no tax. Apple now has a retail presence in many states, so I’m guessing they are required to charge sales tax if you are purchasing music from a state where they have a retail store.
(In New Jersey, you’re supposed to pay the sales tax even if the catalog or internet store has no in-state location. There’s a “use tax” line on the income tax form where you’re supposed to declare those purchases and pay up.)
What this really illustrates is the difficulty of applying real-world jurisdictional rules to the internet (and other long-distance transactions). It’s reasonable enough for me to pay New Jersey sales tax if I’m buying music at home, but let’s say I take my laptop out of state. I doubt iTunes can figure out I’ve crossed a border on its own, but I don’t think Apple expects everyone to change their location information whenever they travel. (I’m assuming iTunes doesn’t ask you what state you’re in every time you purchase music, as that would be rather obnoxious.)
The real question is, if you and I perform some sort of transaction over the internet or another telecommunications medium, what rules apply to whom? If I buy a song from Apple, Apple has to pay my state’s sales tax. (But only if they have a store in my state; otherwise, any internet retailer would need to be familiar with every commercial situation in the world.) Similarly, when someone tried to sell Nazi memorabilia through a Yahoo auction, France charged Yahoo with trafficking in Nazi memorabilia, which is illegal in France. If my web site offended someone in England, they might sue me for libel in England, rather than the U.S. which has a narrower definition of “libel”.
I’m not convinced that these rules scale well. In particular, the France and hypothetical England cases worry me.
Imagine two neighboring countries. In Country A, it is illegal to disparage cheese. Let’s say someone in Country B posts a sign, visible in Country A, which states “Cheese sucks!” Country A then charges that person with disparaging cheese, because people in Country A can see the sign. If that seems ridiculous, then so should France’s case against Yahoo.
Imagine the web as a hollow sphere with writing on the inside. It is divided into regions representing the various jurisdictions on Earth where web servers are located. If I write something in the U.S. portion of the sphere, it can be read from anywhere, but I didn’t write it everywhere. (The flaw in this analogy is that writing on walls is a “push” medium—the photons get sent in your direction whether you wanted them or not—whereas the web is a “pull” medium—you have to request the page in order to read it. But that strengthens my side of the argument.)
It gets even more complicated. I live in New Jersey, but ZedneWeb currently lives on a server in California. Fortunately, they’re both part of the U.S., so questions don’t arise over free speech issues, but consider a German who posts something illegal in Germany to a web site hosted in the U.S. Has that person broken a law? What, exactly, has that person done, and where did it happen?
When the internet started getting big, a lot of people said that it transcended locality; local and even national laws could not be applied to it. Since then, a great many people have been tried for things done over the internet, leading some to say that this talk of transcendence was naïve. But that misses the point: it isn’t that the internet makes it impossible to apply local law, it’s that it makes it really hard to determine what laws should apply.
As I see it, we would be wise to resist calls to codify the rules until we have a better understanding of what we’re talking about.
You’ve probably heard about Senator Santorum’s comments comparing homosexuality to incest and child molestation, but if you haven’t read the interview transcript, you should. The Senator’s comments are actually worse in context. Not only does he apparently see homosexual relationships as being on the same level as child molestation and bestiality (!), he also feels that the right to privacy itself is a bad idea.
I would put it back to where it is, the democratic process. If New York doesn’t want sodomy laws, if the people of New York want abortion, fine. I mean, I wouldn’t agree with it, but that’s their right. But I don’t agree with the Supreme Court coming in.
This has horrified not only liberals, but also limited-government conservatives, who feel that the government has no business getting involved in the affairs of consenting adults.
This of course follows Senator Trent Lott’s comments about how we would all be better off if ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the presidency all those years ago, and Representative Barbara Cubin’s conflation of “black person” and “drug addict” (Washington Post via Josh Marshall). Of the three, it seems that only Senator Lott is suffering any repercussions. The House voted 227 to 195 not to strike Representative Cubin’s comments, and the White House has declared Senator Santorum an “inclusive man”.
Now, I’m all for free speech, but one really has to wonder what these people were thinking. These statements seem like ones that would drive people away from the Republican party. Or perhaps I’m out of touch. Certainly, the media doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal.
In other political (or vaguely politics-related) news:
- Robert Scheer: “The forgettable truth” . Remember those atomic, biological, and chemical weapons that made Saddam Hussein such an immanent threat that we had to invade right now? Well, we may still find some, but it’s clear that this wasn’t the massive threat it was made out to be. I won’t claim that the administration lied, but it does feel a bit deceptive. The scary thing is that no one seems to care: “It is expected that despots can force the blind allegiance of their people to falsehoods. But it is frightening in the extreme when lying matters not at all to a free people.”
The Washington Post: “20 Years of School Bashing”. We’ve all heard the stories about how bad American schools are compared to other industrialized nations, but how true are they? Less than you might think. America is fairly unique among industrialized nations in that until the mid-nineteenth century, it was state policy to keep a significant minority population illiterate. Things don’t look as bad if that is taken into account.
[I]n the international reading study released this month (and ignored by most media), American students finished ninth among 35 nations. White American students outscored top-ranked Sweden 565 to 561. Americans attending schools with less than 10 percent of the students in poverty (13 percent of all students) scored a whopping 589, and only those attending schools with more than 75 percent of the students in poverty (20 percent of all students) scored below the international average.
Note that even here, race seems to be less important than economic class.
(via the Daily Howler, which has some further discussion of the race issue)
- Molly Ivins: “Coming soon: united serfs of America”. The Senate is considering a bill called the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act (the House has a similar bill called the Family Time Flexibility Act ) which allows employers to replace overtime with comp time, allows employers to define more jobs as being managerial (and thus exempt from overtime), makes non-managerial jobs exempt if they pay enough money, and allows employers to delay overtime payment for up to 13 months. Apparently, this benefits workers. (via “Zephyr Teachout”)
- Jared Diamond: “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?” (scroll down a bit). The short version is, “failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it”, but read the whole thing for deeper discussion and examples.
(via Kevin Marks)
Harper’s Magazine: “Jesus Plus Nothing”. An expose of a secret Jesus cult (they don’t like the term “Christian”) known as “the Family”. What makes them scary is not so much their connections with high-ranking Republicans, but their attitude, as you can see in this discussion of covenants:
“Like the Mafia,” Doug clarified. “Look at the strength of their bonds.” He made a fist and held it before Tiahrt’s face. Tiahrt nodded, squinting. “See, for them it’s honor,” Doug said. “For us, it’s Jesus.”
Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their “brothers”: “Look at Hitler,” he said. “Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Bin Laden.” The Family, of course, possessed a weapon those leaders lacked: the “total Jesus” of a brotherhood in Christ.
“That’s what you get with a covenant,” said Coe. “Jesus plus nothing.”