The Future of Internet Taxation

Unstoppable fees very likely to spread across the Web.

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Aside from the burdens of an access tax, access itself will be changing. Allen Kupetz, author of Future of Less, says the three things you always have with you (keys, wallet, and phone) will converge into a multi-use device. "You'll have a wristwatch or bracelet or a pendant," which will allow connection to a cashless system. And that device will be able to recommend a place to eat lunch at noon based on where you are and your food preference.

But "the dark side of this," Kupetz says, is that all our activity will be interconnected—the way an Amazon purchase may create ads for similar products, in the future, insurance companies and employers might have access to your online activity. "It does cause some alarm because 'customization' can be another word for 'stereotype,' " Kupetz says. Asked if there's any hope of avoiding that, he says, "Hope's not a good business strategy.... Most of these things are inevitable."

Internet neutrality. A fundamental change in the way we use the Internet could come with President-elect Barack Obama. Net neutrality, or the idea that everyone gets the same information at the same speed, has been getting increasing political attention. In 2007, speaking to Google employees in Mountain View, Calif., Obama said, "We could see the Internet divided up between the highest bidders." An alternative, he said, is to ensure free and full exchange of information that starts with an open Internet.

But that might not be good for big business. And experts say there is bound to be a hierarchy of Internet speeds. Douglas Raybeck, a Hamilton College professor of anthropology and author of Looking Down the Road: A Systems Approach to Futures Studies, says, "there will be a secondary level to the Internet—one that will carry more, faster, and better. And that will be pricey."

E-mail. One bit of the Internet that seems safe for now is E-mail. When the United Nations proposed an E-mail tax (one U.S. cent for every 100 E-mails) to benefit developing countries in 1999, the outcry was so great it canceled the plan. Portugal, the Philippines, and France have attempted similar SMS taxes, though none have been passed so far. But E-mail is more likely the exception than the rule And as we continue through the digital age, when the timing and scale of the Internet's regulation and taxes are still being hashed out, it seems certain we can be sure to expect death and, now, Internet taxes.