Tag: privacy

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.

The First Amendment Is a Sweet Emotion

Hawaii, no longer content to trample on the Fourteenth Amendment alone, is about to bid a sorry aloha (farewell) to the First Amendment. In a brazen giveaway to celebrities who like to like to vacation on its pristine beaches, Hawaii’s Senate is poised to pass the “Steven Tyler Act.”

The bill, named after – indeed, written by – the Aerosmith frontman, could punish anyone who takes a photograph of a celebrity in public. That includes a tourist who takes out her iPhone to snap a pic of an aging rocker, or perhaps the Obama family. Specifically, the bill would prohibit recording someone “in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person,” while that person is “engaging in a personal or familial activity.” The Steven Tyler Act not only departs from a century’s worth of privacy laws, but does so at a huge cost to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of speech. As my frequent co-author, law professor Josh Blackman explains,  there are several constitutional defects here:

First, the bill offers no exceptions for newsworthy content. It simply assumes that if a person is “engaging in a personal or familial activity with a reasonable expectation of privacy,” any photograph would be illegal. Newspapers covering matters of public affairs (that may be personal or familial) could be snared by this staute.

Second, the proposed statute is purposely vague. It offers no guidance of what “personal or familiar activity” means.

Third, courts would have the authority not only to stop the initial publication of a photograph, but allows for restraining orders for future, subsequent reproductions of the same photograph. This type of authority is called “prior restraint” – highly suspect in First Amendment jurisprudence – with nary a compelling government interest at stake.

Fourth, the penalties are severe, and include compensatory damages, treble punitive damages, and disgorgement of profits. Such penalties on a vague statute would easily chill speech far beyond the worst kind of paparazzi any celebrity can imagine.

Fifth, this standard applies not only to the person who takes the photograph, but potentially to anyone who uses the photographs in any capacity.  The only existing publication-related laws even approaching such a strict liability standard involve child pornography. As Josh notes based on one of his law review articles, many of these constitutional defects could be fixed by adding a newsworthiness exception to the law and limiting the scope and nature of damages that can be awarded. These tweaks would bring the law more in line with existing privacy law, while still respecting the Constitution. Protecting privacy in public is a laudable goal that in our constitutional jurisprudence dates back at least to the seminal article “The Right to Privacy” by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Indeed, we’re all affected by the sweet emotion of seeing celebrities harassed by the paparazzi (viz., Princess Diana). The Steven Tyler Act, however, misses a very important thing – that privacy and the First Amendment can coexist.

Hawaii shouldn’t walk this way, instead promoting the right of privacy that our society should strive for while ensuring the freedom of speech. Let’s not be jaded by the costs of freedom. Anything else is just crazy.

Privacy Regulation and Political Economy

Good-hearted people want to cure hunger, ignorance, and other human deficits. Many see the cure in taking from the group of “haves” and giving to the “have-nots.” Along with the injustice of the transfer itself, libertarians like to point out the backward incentives that generous, systematic giving creates. Poverty and ignorance becomes a low-end, but survivable, mode of living. It’s not really a surprise that these problems respond to subsidy by becoming intractable.

That’s simple math to people who understand incentives, so it shouldn’t be hard to recognize incentive structures and their warping in other areas. Take federalism. The Constitution set out a design for government that aligned political incentives well. With a limited federal government and plenary powers left with the states, elected officials closer to the people would provide better government because they would be responsible to smaller numbers of people at the ballot box.

When state officials go wrong, good-hearted, economically-minded people want to cure their deficits. Many see the cure in removing power from the state level to the federal through preemption. State regulation can interfere with national markets, and there is a Commerce Clause that arguably permits national regulation of all things commercial.

But the Commerce Clause was not a grant of plenary authority over commerce anywhere in the United States. It gave Congress power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Think of a border sentry tasked mostly with preventing anyone from erecting gates.

One can “fix” bad state regulation by replacing it with a less-bad, nationally uniform rule. But doing so frees state officials from responsibility. The subsidy makes carelessness a low-end, but survivable mode of governing.

So with California Attorney General Kamala Harris brandishing $2,500 fines per download of apps in California if they don’t meet the terms of the California Online Privacy Protection Act, I don’t think the right answer is for the federal government to whisk in with its own less-bad privacy law that preempts California’s. The attorney general and the authors of California’s law should be allowed to let their behavior have its effects in their state, responding to their state’s voters if it has negative consequences.

The federal government’s only response should be to make clear that there are limits on California’s ability to bring out-of-staters into court. The federal government should preserve the right of people and businesses to exit states that make themselves unfriendly through high taxes, poor services, and inefficient regulation. This will set up the incentive structure under which governance in the United States will thrive, perhaps at the cost of California sinking into the ocean.

A No-Brainer: Bad for Privacy and Liberty

CNET journalist Declan McCullagh has lit up the Internets today with his reporting on a revamped Senate online privacy bill that would give an alphabet soup of federal agencies unprecedented access to email and other online communications.

Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies – including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission – to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

This would be an astounding expansion of government authority to snoop. And it comes at a time when the public is getting wind through the Petraeus scandal of just how easy it already is to access our private communications.

Assuming McCullagh’s reading of the draft he obtained is remotely plausible, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) should reconsider his current course–if he wants to maintain the mantle of a privacy leader, at least.

The Washington, D.C., meta-story is almost as interesting. Who is where on the bill? And when? The ACLU’s Christopher Calabrese told McCullagh last night, “We believe a warrant is the appropriate standard for any contents.” Freedom Works came out of the gate this morning with a petition asking for oppositions to Senator Leahy’s revised bill.

The Center for Democracy did not have a comment when McCullagh asked, though spokesman Brock Meeks suggests via Twitter today that McCullagh didn’t try hard enough to reach him. The reason that’s important? CDT has a history of equivocation and compromise in the face of privacy-invasive legislation and policies. At this point, the group has said via Twitter that they “wouldn’t support the rewrite described in CNET.” That’s good news, and it’s consistent with people’s expectations for CDT both on the outside and within.

There will undoubtedly be more to this story. Emails should not only be statutorily protected, but Fourth Amendment protected, based on the framework for communications privacy I laid out for the Supreme Court in Cato’s Florida v. Jardines brief.

Feds May Not Have ObamaCare Operational on Time

The Washington Post reports:

By the end of this week, states must decide whether they will build a health-insurance exchange or leave the task to the federal government. The question is, with as many as 17 states expected to leave it to the feds, can the Obama administration handle the workload.

“These are systems that typically take two or three years to build,” says Kevin Walsh, managing director of insurance exchange services at Xerox. “The last time I looked at the calendar, that’s not what we’re working with.”…

The Obama administration has known for awhile that there’s a decent chance it could end up doing a lot of this. Now though, they’re finding out how big their workload will actually become.

Betcha didn’t see that coming.

Part of the reason the workload is so heavy? “Buying health insurance is a lot more difficult than purchasing a plane ticket on Expedia.” You don’t say. But I thought that’s why we needed government to do it.