Less coffee, more news

As representative of the “commissie-Brinkman”, CDA-politician Elco Brinkman proposed to cabinet-minister Plasterk of Media and Education that a special tax of 2 euros per year should be levied on Internet users (to be collected by the providers), in order to pay newspapers for the news that they make available on the Internet for free. Some of his arguments are that news costs money and at present Internet users can read news for free, the current situation harms the pluriformity of the press, and 2 euros is the price of a cup of coffee (i.e., Internet users should not start whining). Plasterk hesistates. And rightly so.

The proposal, while sounding reasonable at first, is in fact dangerous. Should it get passed, we are getting into an area where we do not want to be, namely an area in which the ancient, which should be stimulated to innovate to survive, is being kept alive on orders of the government by taxing the citizens.

Newspapers in their present form are harmed by the Internet. That is why most newspapers try to innovate, which is good. Trustworthy news on the Internet is mainly supplied by professionals. The question is how these professionals get paid for their work. A partial solution exists in advertising, which is moving more and more away from papers and magazines and towards the Internet. Advertising might not be a complete solution, but even if it is not, the remainder of the solution is not found in taxation. Here are some arguments why not.

First, news on the Internet is not free, as the Internet is not free. To get onto the Internet I need a computer (yearly cost of about 500 euros), an Internet subscription (yearly cost of about 200 euros), an iPhone (perhaps not a necessity, but I prefer to read the news on the train, yearly cost about 100 euros), and a mobile phone subscription (yearly cost about 200 euros).  So, you see, I already pay about 1000 euros per year to get onto the Internet.

Second, taxation of the Internet to pay for news is not fair towards (a) people who already pay for the news by having a newspaper subscription, and (b) people who do not use the Internet to read the news. “Internet user” is not equal to “Internet news reader”.

Third, in general people do not pay for the Internet to read news. They pay for the Internet for a myriad of reasons, but “reading the news” will not be high on most people’s lists. If I have to pay extra for news on the Internet, I should get the option to buy Internet without the news. I can assure you that that option will never exist.

Fourth, newspapers are a private business, not a government business. Private businesses which are destined to submerge should not be kept treading water by government means.

Fifth (and probably most important), there is the legitimate question where it will end. For instance, if you like to solve Sudokus (which I do not), you can get them for free on the Internet. This harms the publishers of puzzle books. If Internet users have to pay 2 euros per year when they are able to read news on the Internet, shouldn’t they also pay 10 eurocents per year for the ability to solve Sudokus on the Internet? And what about cooking recipes? Or encyclopedic information (I mean, who will buy an encyclopedia nowadays)? Or comics? Or, from another perspective, should the price of train tickets be increased, since there are free papers available for commuters, some of whom will definitely have cancelled their regular newspaper subscriptions because of this service?

No, newspapers should solve the problem of their finances on their own. They have shown that they are willing to do that. They also seem to acknowledge the need to change their business. If they need extra cash to do that (for instance for research on how to gain microfinances by having readers pay a cent or so for each article read), the government might award them a grant for that. Such a grant should come from the regular research budget, and not from extra taxation.

It is a positive thing that the government is concerned about maintaining a good news service for citizens. It is also good that it acknowledges the dangers of the Internet on the prolongation of the news services that we have now. But the thought that the problems can be solved by taxing Internet users for their ability to read news on the Internet is shortsighted, overly complicated, and harms innovation.

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