Would an Email Tax Fix the UK Economy?

Bob Crow, image courtesy of RMTEver since the global financial crisis hit, politicians have been trying all sorts of ways to get the economy back on track: encouraging spending, enacting huge stimulus plans, increasing sales taxes and the like. But what if they tried thinking outside of the box … or even the inbox?

Bob Crow, one of Britain’s most notorious union bosses, has tried exactly that by suggesting there should be a tax on email. His idea is that if the country’s government received a penny for every email sent in the U.K., it would massively reduce the U.K.’s national debt — which officially, is around £1 trillion, or $1.6 trillion USD — help to keep workers in jobs and generally help fix the broken economy.

“If groups of workers are under attack, we believe we should coordinate and stand firm,” said the general secretary of Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport union, adding that he wanted to “propose a tax of 1p per email, and get rid of Trident [the U.K. military’s expensive nuclear submarine program]”.

It sounds like a crazy idea — and given Crow’s reputation as a firebrand, it’s unlikely to turn into legislation. But the idea has some precedent. Countries like Germany and Canada already put a levy on recordable media to try and boost the coffers, and the idea of paying for every email has come up before.

Back in 2004, Bill Gates suggested a virtual stamp to end spam. In 2006, AOL (s aol) and Yahoo proposed a payment system that would charge up to a cent to guarantee delivery. And a couple of years ago, Yahoo (s yhoo) came back to the idea by suggesting a tiny charity donation for each email would make spam unviable.

The trouble is, these ideas have usually been met with a blank stare — if not outright anger — from the public. Legitimate questions have been asked: Should consumers pay extra to paper over (but not fix) the deficiencies of the system? Wouldn’t better spam filters negate the problem more easily? And, once you start charging even the smallest amount, do you open the floodgates for price hikes further down the line?

The results so far have been the idea is being squashed at every turn. AOL cancelled its plans. Yahoo doesn’t charge. Microsoft? (s msft) Of course not. But like any idea that resurrects itself from time to time, it’s worth killing it all over again in the hope that next time it won’t come back.

So, would Crow’s tax proposal raise the necessary money? I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and … well, it won’t clear a trillion pounds of debt any time soon.

According to Radicati, there are 294 billion emails sent each day. Around 90 percent of email is spam, however, so there are only around 29.4 billion genuine messages are sent each day. There are only around 2 billion email users worldwide, which would indicate that, on average, the U.K.’s 50 million internet users — are responsible for 2.5 per cent of all legitimate emails sent.

That’s 735 million messages per day. At a penny per message, that would bring in £7.35 million per day, or £2.68 billion per year — not a small sum by any stretch of the imagination, but not exactly enough to wipe out the national debt as suggested. And it assumes that people would continue sending emails at the same rate even when a charge was being levied.

So can we please stop this madness before it starts all over again?

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