More Internet Sales Taxes—and Your Privacy Compromised

Yesterday, Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and 19 cosponsors introduced a bill to promote the collection of taxes on Internet sales. I can’t recall seeing a bill so universally condemned in the libertarian, free-market, anti-tax, and pro-innovation communities. The National Taxpayers Union issued a press release, a “myths & facts” one-pager, and wrote it up on their blog for good measure. Here’s the Heartland Institute’s press release. The Competitive Enterprise Institute calls it a raw deal. R Street seems to hate this bill with a burning passion. Our sweethearts at NetChoice went with a Valentine’s theme.

[Update: The Center for Freedom and Prosperity also does not like this bill.]

[Update 2: Americans for Tax Reform does not like Internet sales taxes.]

I think differently from these groups. Oh no, I don’t think it’s a good idea to let state and local tax authorities impose complex taxes on businesses around the country just because they sell online. Doing so would cause Internet sales taxes to soar because tax authorities would be able to impose taxes on people who can’t vote them out of office.

But I think it’s important not to forget the consequences for privacy if Congress were to approve interstate tax collection like this.

Dig down into the bill and you start to see what it takes for states and localities to tax products sent into their states by remote sellers.

For purposes of [collecting taxes], the location to which a remote sale is sourced refers to the location where the item sold is received by the purchaser, based on the location indicated by instructions for delivery that the purchaser furnishes to the seller. When no delivery location is specified, the remote sale is sourced to the customer’s address that is either known to the seller or, if not known, obtained by the seller during the consummation of the transaction, including the address of the customer’s payment instrument if no other address is available.

That means that sellers all over the country would have to turn the addresses of the people they sell to over to state tax authorities. You could design a system to minimize the privacy problems here, but not eliminate them—especially when the time comes for the officials in one state to audit the sales in another.

Let’s say a seller of naughty toys were audited by the tax authority in another state. To prove that it has remitted all the taxes due in that state, it woud have to turn over, at the least, data reflecting the amount of its sales by geographical location. There are something like 30,000 state and local jurisdictions with authority to impose sales and use taxes, more than 7,500 of which have already adopted this kind of tax. If not ZIP+4, then the actual address of recipients would have to be turned over. Could they turn over non-identifying summaries? The point of an audit is to check the honesty and accuracy of summary filings, so the answer is no.

So state tax authorities would get troves of data about online purchases delivered into their state. The standard misuses apply. It might be transferred to other organs of government, legally or not, for investigation and examination. Curious state bureaucrats might look up the purchasing habits of ex-spouses, famous names, and political figures. The list goes on and on.

Destination-based taxation is complicated and privacy-invasive. Source-based taxation—local states taxing local sellers—is eminently simple and straightforward by comparison. (“How much did you sell? You owe the local sales tax on it.”) The problem with that—as tax authorities see things—is that taxpayers have a say in the rates they pay. That keeps taxes somewhat in check.

More Internet sales taxes at the price of further compromise to privacy? Count me as a condemnor of the misnamed “Marketplace Fairness Act.”