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Summary:

British union boss Bob Crow says that putting a tax on every email that gets sent would give a significant boost to the country’s troubled economy. But would anyone really pay a tax on messages — and would it even help if you did?

Bob Crow, image courtesy of RMT

Bob Crow, image courtesy of RMTEver since the global financial crisis hit, politicians have been trying all sorts of ways to get the economy back on track: encouraging spending, enacting huge stimulus plans, increasing sales taxes and the like. But what if they tried thinking outside of the box … or even the inbox?

Bob Crow, one of Britain’s most notorious union bosses, has tried exactly that by suggesting there should be a tax on email. His idea is that if the country’s government received a penny for every email sent in the U.K., it would massively reduce the U.K.’s national debt — which officially, is around £1 trillion, or $1.6 trillion USD — help to keep workers in jobs and generally help fix the broken economy.

“If groups of workers are under attack, we believe we should coordinate and stand firm,” said the general secretary of Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport union, adding that he wanted to “propose a tax of 1p per email, and get rid of Trident [the U.K. military’s expensive nuclear submarine program]”.

It sounds like a crazy idea — and given Crow’s reputation as a firebrand, it’s unlikely to turn into legislation. But the idea has some precedent. Countries like Germany and Canada already put a levy on recordable media to try and boost the coffers, and the idea of paying for every email has come up before.

Back in 2004, Bill Gates suggested a virtual stamp to end spam. In 2006, AOL and Yahoo proposed a payment system that would charge up to a cent to guarantee delivery. And a couple of years ago, Yahoo came back to the idea by suggesting a tiny charity donation for each email would make spam unviable.

The trouble is, these ideas have usually been met with a blank stare — if not outright anger — from the public. Legitimate questions have been asked: Should consumers pay extra to paper over (but not fix) the deficiencies of the system? Wouldn’t better spam filters negate the problem more easily? And, once you start charging even the smallest amount, do you open the floodgates for price hikes further down the line?

The results so far have been the idea is being squashed at every turn. AOL cancelled its plans. Yahoo doesn’t charge. Microsoft? Of course not. But like any idea that resurrects itself from time to time, it’s worth killing it all over again in the hope that next time it won’t come back.

So, would Crow’s tax proposal raise the necessary money? I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and … well, it won’t clear a trillion pounds of debt any time soon.

According to Radicati, there are 294 billion emails sent each day. Around 90 percent of email is spam, however, so there are only around 29.4 billion genuine messages are sent each day. There are only around 2 billion email users worldwide, which would indicate that, on average, the U.K.’s 50 million internet users — are responsible for 2.5 per cent of all legitimate emails sent.

That’s 735 million messages per day. At a penny per message, that would bring in £7.35 million per day, or £2.68 billion per year — not a small sum by any stretch of the imagination, but not exactly enough to wipe out the national debt as suggested. And it assumes that people would continue sending emails at the same rate even when a charge was being levied.

So can we please stop this madness before it starts all over again?

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  1. The man has form, and his mathematics is generally always incorrect. Last year it was text messages. Don’t worry, his nonsense is generally recognised for what it is (not that plenty of other nonsense doesn’t get enacted).

    Oh, and he’s also a massive hypocrite, taking home 10 times what a lot of the workers he ‘represents’ take home.

    1. Bobbie Johnson Andy Tuesday, March 1, 2011

      Good point, Andy: here’s the interview last year where he suggested a penny tax on each SMS (which would raise under a billion pounds):
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/dec/13/bob-crow-strikes-rmt-union

  2. Bobbie, you are compeltely wrong here. The idea to tax 1p per email would eliminate spam and will really fuel e-commerce, since spam today is just cheapest marketing tool, nothing more.

    And hello, does anybody care about $1 per 100 emails? If you don’t spam, this is likely your week’s amount.

    1. Respectfully disagree, Andrey.

      Even if it sorted out email spam, it would simply shift the problem over to the services that people chose to use instead of email (and lots of people would). How would you determine who pays? IP address? What if I’m using a non-UK based email provider? What if I’m a foreigner emailing from inside Britain?

      Yeah, it’s a great spam-killing idea in theory, but if three of the world’s biggest email providers have failed to make it work then I don’t see why anyone else would suddenly be able to.

    2. dontthinknonsense Andrey Wednesday, March 2, 2011

      Look, I do not want this message to sound insulting, but really?? fuel e-commerce? $1 per 100 emails? err since it is in the UK, £1/100 emails… As it was mentioned in one of the paragraphs, the moment you double pay or triple play for the email service it will be just like going back in time. You already pay for your internet service, the companies that serve you the emails pay for the internet services, the ISP’s themselves pay so they can provide you the email message. So your simple dollar has been paid more than enough. What is next? tax 1 pence for every time you flush your toilet? or for going inside the post office? or for watching TV? Oh forgot, the UK already pays a tax to watch tv, one that keeps increasing the amount of commercials… It is not the workforce that need to fix this, the government keep wasting money in things that don’t directly improve the quality of living in the UK. There was a good idea that would have made more sense than this… a tax on the banks that almost destroyed the world economy, a tax on the bonuses, and what happened?? that got shot down, because the rich want to continue getting richer, and put all the load on the working force. If the government would rather create incentives so more high paid jobs are created/stay in the UK, then more people would be able to pay more tax, buy more stuff. The reality is another, all high paid jobs are either in a bank, or gone with the factories that went to the far east.

  3. It`s a great business idea to fill the budget… but I don`t like it. In this case the next step can be taxing of bloggers, because blogging is profitable and popular business. For example Greatiful.com offers to start raising money on your content right now. Just register as a Publisher and confirm your RSS channel. Blogger shold just sometimes enter to Greatiful and take earned money.
    I think most will limit the communication through Emails. In any case, thanks for news!

  4. Bobbie,

    1) Of course you realize that the future is not email but more instant like twitter or facebook messages (or any other sort of IM). So even if UK Gov COULD tax emails using some unknown technical means it would just provide a shift into other communication channels.
    2) People are used to SMS Message costs so 1p per message would sound reasonable by comparison
    3) It would reduce spam but also any sort of free newsletters people may actually care about.

    1. I did originally write almost exactly your first point, Kashif — surely people would simply move onto different channels (if they haven’t already). And would you be able to tax Facebook, Twitter, IM and the rest?

  5. I only very rarely use email these days. This would encourage me to stop doing it completely. Twitter and IM cover my daily information flow. Sounds like a typical dumb UK suggestion. Here’s another one. How about charging everyone in the UK 0.01p every time they access Facebook?

  6. Jan Simmonds Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    This could end up used as leverage by Facebook or other closed communities to encourage free communication ‘within their platforms’ which would be the nail in the coffin of a free internet and ultimately shift more value to US Inc. I’d rather suffer spam than the uncomfortable knowledge that a significant proportion of the world’s communication is channeled through a single private and as yet unchecked organisation. If recent history has taught us anything it is that nation governments and large profit hungry companies don’t do anything for the common global good. Spam or not, the free market of the internet is our best hope for a competitive and inspiring future. Based on that, we have the opportunity of building the kinds of companies that do create the borderless value, this proposal cannot hope to provide.

  7. The tax would potentially fix the UK’s national debt, NOT the economy. Those, though intimately connected, are not the same thing.

    1. Bobbie Johnson Chris Tuesday, March 1, 2011

      True. Though the suggestion is not that they’re equivalent but that if there was no national debt, then the economy in general would be a lot more buoyant.

  8. Oh my God now U.K people have pay tax on email

  9. what’s next… 1p tax on blog comments

  10. Taxing voicemail might make him more friends.

    Or how about taxing buzzwords, and using a poll to determine which should be taxed at the highest rate? The word ‘pivot’ could single-handedly revive NorCal’s public finances.

    But if he can get away with taxing email he should definitely tax attachments separately, then move on to taxing verbal conversations lasting longer than 2 minutes at a 2p/5min rate.

    Just don’t tax sarcasm. I can’t afford it.

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