- - Monday, May 26, 2014

The time to protect Internet freedom is now. That means telling the government to butt out and stay out. Period. That’s why Congress must make permanent the ban on Internet-access taxes that expires in the fall.

There is a broad national consensus that anybody who wants to access the Internet should be able to do so, any time, anywhere, on any device, and never get a visit from the tax man. Congress enshrined this wide consensus in the law in 1998, and has renewed the assurance three times since. Unless Congress acts again before Nov. 1, however, more than 10,000 different state and local jurisdictions can begin feeding their greed by applying their favorite taxes to everyone’s favorite websites.

These communications taxes are usually preposterously excessive. The federal, state and local fees and taxes that clutter telephone bills add up to an average 17 percent, and it’s 12 percent for cable and video services — far more than the average general sales tax rate of 7 percent. These figures take on additional significance because studies suggest that cost is a significant factor in determining whether consumers utilize high-speed Internet services.

Enabling the imposition of communications taxes on the Internet will make the network slower; extending the tax moratorium will encourage innovation and economic growth. Would Mark Zuckerberg have created Facebook if he had faced a hefty tax to access the Internet from his dorm room at Harvard? Facebook, ebay, Google, Amazon, Twitter and a host of other major Internet-based companies can be run from a computer positioned anywhere in the world. They all chose to start in America for a reason: the guarantee of a tax-free Internet. Take away that advantage, and tomorrow’s competitors will pack their virtual bags and start the business in countries with friendlier tax policies.

High-speed, low-cost Internet opens doors to education, health care and entrepreneurial opportunities. Prohibitive taxes on the Internet would prevent some pay-sensitive job seekers from logging on and applying for their dream jobs. Access plans that are too expensive would discourage patients from finding the right doctor or trying out telemedicine, which promises to bring medical expertise to rural areas.

This isn’t a partisan issue. The Senate bill to make the tax ban permanent was introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. He has collected 30 Republican and 16 Democratic co-sponsors. That’s almost enough to assure passage, but in Harry Reid’s Senate, there’s no guarantee it would ever get a vote.

Congress must not allow the tax ban to expire. The Internet is far too important for America to relinquish its edge as the leader of this crucial element of worldwide communications.