Do the Irish people want to pay an internet tax?

19 Jan 2012

Under a new proposal brought before the Dail yesterday by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, homes and firms will be expected to pay a new broadcasting licence fee whether they own a TV or not. The rationale being applied is that they access State broadcaster RTÉ’s news and content on devices like PCs, smartphones and iPads.

I’ve a bad feeling about this one – it’s opening a Pandora’s box of issues.

The issue of whether people who owned PCs and had internet connectivity ought to pay a TV licence reared its head about the turn of the century. The moment it had flared up it was immediately denied.

Rabbitte’s predecessor in the communications portfolio, former minister Eamon Ryan, shortly before leaving office last year signalled it was time to perhaps abolish the existing TV licence regime and come up with an alternative structure to pay for public service news and broadcasting.

Within months of coming into office, Rabbitte sparked a debate about a possible internet tax based on his observation that young people are accessing their TV on devices that, well, aren’t really TVs, and his department intends to get to grips with the extent of this form of TV licence evasion.

Yesterday in Dail Eireann, Rabbitte pointed out that €25m in revenue is being lost each year through TV licence evasion.

A proposed levy to replace the €160 a year TV licence is expected to be imposed on properties whether or not there is a TV on the premises. This is based on a perception that they are accessing programmes via the internet on iPads and iPhones.

Granted, I’m a big fan of State broadcaster RTÉ’s website and various iPad and iPhone apps. Especially the iPad app for RTÉ Player, it’s sublime. RTÉ has done a fantastic job with its internet and catch-up digital content strategy.

But that does not mean my next-door neighbour gets his or her news or programming that way. This is a sweeping assumption by the State.

The idea of an internet tax to pay for the State broadcaster could be very unpopular if you conclude that the internet is an international phenomenon and has opened up a world of information – people can get news from anywhere, from blogs, from social networks and any number of overseas broadcasters or newspapers.

The measure will only serve to fan the flames of anger groups like the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), hold for RTÉ’s dual-funding model of TV licence revenues and advertising, not to mention revenues it gains from the internet, too.

And for a country like Ireland that is home to the international wings of many of the world’s biggest internet companies, the notion of taxing people for simply accessing the internet may send out the wrong signal.

Taxing the internet

Last week, the EU said that for every offline job that was lost, 2.6 new jobs can be created in the online economy.

A levy that is imposed on people who don’t own a TV but based on the assumption that they – if they were inclined – can get their news or programmes from the State broadcaster via the web is nothing more than an internet tax.

It would be hard to dress it up any other way. You can’t put lipstick on a pig. It’s an internet tax.

In Finland, the government there made international headlines after declaring high-speed broadband access a legal right.

Ireland should be concerned more about making similar pronouncements and being seen as progressive in the digital age, not being panned internationally as the one country in the world that taxed its people for accessing the internet.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years