That Study In Every Paper Claiming Title II Will Result In $15 Billion In New Taxes? Yeah, That's Total Bunk
from the damn-lies-and-statistics dept
A few weeks back, we noted how a new study by the Progressive Policy Institute was making the claim that reclassifying ISPs under Title II would result in $15 billion in new state and federal taxes. As also noted, the claim was quickly picked up by media outlets and large ISP executives as the centerpiece of a campaign to convince the press, public and regulators that Title II will result in the sky falling. The cable industry was also quick to use the study as the underpinning of a series of ads pretending they care about soaring consumer bills (adorable!).
The problem, as usual in farmed telecom think tank wonkery, was that the study’s findings were largely bunk. Consumer groups were quick to complain (pdf) that study author Hal Singer packed the study with conflations, misleading math (when calculations weren’t obscured entirely) and the inclusion of unrelated programs and issues (like 911 funding) to intentionally bloat the predicted impact. Singer also misleadingly included the unrelated temporary moratorium on Internet service taxation in his findings, even though the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) has since been made permanent, wiping $4 billion, or 27%, off of Singer’s prediction in one fell swoop.
None of this of course stopped the study and the scary $15 billion tax estimate from being used by ISPs, CEOs and loyal politicians to wage war on Title II, and the study has since been regurgitated unskeptically in thousands of news reports. Well, except for the Washington Post, which recently decided to actually fact check the study’s findings (journalism!), only to discover that even if you could accurately state the full financial impact of Title II, the report went out of its way to paint as ugly of a scenario as possible:
“It is impossible to quantify the exact impact of the potential FCC decision, since Internet regulation is a new area of policy. New taxes are prohibited as long as the Internet Tax Freedom Act is in effect, so it is inaccurate to say there would be $15 billion in new taxes. There may be state charges and fees, but there is no proof that all of the current fees on telephone services would apply again to Internet services. It will not add up to $15 billion, and likely not add up to $11 billion ? the worst-case scenario. The researchers agree it is a ?high-end? estimate, which was the purpose of the report.”
Amusingly, the Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee contacted politicians that have bandied around the estimate, and few were interested in changing their positions when they were informed the $15 billion total was a phantom. Also of note, the story notes that Singer did at least edit his study when the Internet tax moratorium was introduced, but buried the update:
“There are too many unknowns to alarm consumers who are not well-versed in the technical and legal details of telecommunications regulations and laws. Given the uncertainties, it would be more appropriate to give a range of potential charges. But the researchers did not calculate a low-end figure for the report. In addition, the modification from $15 billion to $11 billion is a 27 percent decrease, yet the change is buried in a footnote and not readily visible for the public.“
Note that none of this is to say that Title II won’t see some form of tax increase, but most analysts (the ones not trying to scare people) appear to think it will be somewhere in the range of not that big of a deal. Even if Singer was able to successfully calculate the myriad trajectory of dozens of Internet policies and tech trends to come to a hard number, he should have at least used his crystal ball to try and factor the cost benefits neutrality rules — and a healthy Internet — would have on the consumer. Would a tax increase be offset by the savings from not being price-gouged by neutrality-violating duopoly? How much would most consumers be willing to pay in additional taxes for a healthy Internet? These are questions Singer doesn’t want to ask.
After being called out by the Post, Singer took to Twitter with a unique defense of his bloated, intentionally-inaccurate missive, only highlighting the part of the story that shows there may be some kind of tax increase:
— Hal Singer (@HalSinger) January 16, 2015