The Internet can be a pretty surreal world at the best of times.
The Internet can be a pretty surreal world at the best of
But last week the sense of unreality was raised by several degrees, not
by any dotty dot-com or mind-dizzying technology developed in Silicon
Valley, but at the other end of the country - by Congress.
The House passed a bill, HR 1291, or the ’Internet Access Charge
Prohibition Act of 2000,’ which essentially forbids the Federal
Communications Commission from imposing any kind of per-minute tax on
people’s use of the Internet.
This is something the FCC says it had no intention of ever doing
The reason for this seemingly strange use of the House’s time is that a
great many people, ordinary citizens, had been wasting their elected
representatives’ time, protesting against what they believed to be the
imminent imposition of such a tax.
It all started, as so many things do nowadays, with an e-mail. This
particular e-mail, one of those ’e-mail your representative now or the
world as we know it is going to end’ sort of e-mails, has in fact been
doing the rounds on the Internet in various forms for at least four
years. It gives details of a bill sponsored by Congressman Tony Schnell
to place a tax on people’s use of the Internet. The only problem is that
there has never been any such bill, nor is there any Congressman
Schnell. Nevertheless, as one or two lawmakers noted in the reporting of
the story last week, Tony Schnell and the fictitious Internet tax
generated more response from constituents than some genuine issues.
This is probably not the first time that Congress has devoted time to
myth and rumor - ’Kuwait is a democracy deserving of our protection’ -
but it probably is the first time it has deliberately passed a law in an
attempt to squash a rumor. Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell called it
’a fabricated solution to an imaginary problem.’
So why on earth waste legislative time over a non-issue? The reason is
that this imaginary problem could have turned out to be fairly
People like their Internet, and they would certainly like it to remain
as free as possible. And nobody likes taxes. The natural instinct of any
politician is, right up until the moment it comes to the vote, to
distance themselves as far as possible from the idea of taxes. And it’s
not often that politicians get to paint themselves in white before there
is even any mud-slinging around, especially over an issue that, as far
as they can tell, is not going to come back and bite them in the butt
down the line.
Except that it may yet come back and bite them. Apart from anything
else, this action is likely only to fuel rumors, not end them. Already
people are asking about some wording at the end of the bill that
excludes Internet telephony services from any tax ban.
At the moment, while a few politicians spend their time getting all
worked up about online drug or porn sites, most know that their
constituents see the Internet as ’a good thing.’ And if their
constituents see it as a good thing then they’re all for it. But the
real Internet issue that is going to divide Capitol Hill is not any tax
on access but whether or not sales tax should apply to online purchases,
and how. Either way, a lot of politicians are going to make themselves
mighty unpopular when it comes to a vote.
Meanwhile, the writer of that original e-mail must be feeling quite
- Stovin Hayter is editor-in-chief of Revolution. He can be contacted at