Read my cyberlips

National | Will governors tax internet sales? Will a federal civil-rights law change the face of AOL? Will MP3 become the gadget that stole Christmas?

Issue: "Top 100 Books 1999," Dec. 4, 1999

No net taxes?
Republicans are fighting over whether to tax the Internet, with Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah arguing that customers who buy online from some other state should pay sales tax as if they were at a local store. Since many online purchases cross state lines, customers pay no sales tax. That has some states complaining that residents are giving themselves a tax cut. Most of the time, tax-free online purchases are a wash for consumers, who must pay for postage and handling fees plus, in some cases, credit-card interest because websites don't take cash. Gov. Leavitt is chairman of the National Governors' Association, which complains that online stores (most of which are losing money) are putting "bricks and mortar" retailers at a competitive disadvantage. Even though local stores survived the death of many downtowns, endless generations of mail-order catalogs, direct mail, and even infomercials, somehow the governors think the Net will shut down the local strip mall. Right now, paying local sales tax is a challenge even for Fortune 500 companies since literally thousands of jurisdictions have different rules they must follow. Gov. Leavitt's idea of a solution is to bring in a "trusted third party" that would make super-duper software to calculate, collect, and distribute sales tax. Republicans are split on the matter. Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia is taking up the opposition on this matter, with a proposal to prevent all taxes on remote Internet sales and even remove a current federal excise tax on telephone service. But the higher ranks of the GOP are vague on the issue. Likely presidential nominee George W. Bush is mum on the matter, only saying that he plans to study Gov. Gilmore's recommendations. Online sales are in their infancy. If customers have to deal with the unfamiliar world of Web shopping, along with paying both postage and sales tax, they may not find it all worth the bother. Americans with disabilities online?
Does your website violate the Americans with Disabilities Act? It's a more serious question than you think. Why? The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is suing America Online, saying the online service is inaccessible to the blind and, therefore, breaking the law. Unlike most Internet service providers, AOL uses special software that combines many services into one package. Trouble is, the program isn't compatible with refreshable Braille displays used by many blind readers. Therefore the NFB's suit says that AOL "has failed to remove communications barriers ... thus denying the blind independent access to this service in violation of Title III of the ADA." AOL's customer base is made up largely of Internet novices who find the company's software package and access service easier to use than Internet-only connections, which require more technological savvy. Instead of sending Braille display users to another service, the NFB suit could force a drastic change to the AOL software. The organization demands a host of design modifications: Every graphic must be captioned; every function must be accessible via keyboard; and programs "must rely upon standard Windows controls" or violate the law. Should the ADA apply in cyberspace, virtually any American website would be under the thumb of the government to make sure its graphic design met federal guidelines. Meg-a-minute music
MP3 music is going mainstream. MP3 is a digital format that lets people store near-CD quality music using about a megabyte of disk space per minute. This means massive collections of tunes (often, alas, copied illegally) can be stored on hard drives and CD-ROMs. Last year the first portable MP3 devices hit the market, and now a horde of these newfangled digital gadgets is coming in time for Christmas. The good side is that they're cool, super-lightweight, and usually contain no moving parts. The bad side is that they're usually substantially more expensive than a Sony Walkman, store songs on special disks that cost a fortune, and often have limited use. Even with prices often hovering around $400, manufacturers are preparing for a boom, with MP3 players coming in odd sizes, shapes, and colors (like bubblegum pink, ice blue, and lime green). As a music medium, the MP3 file is a joy to many. A budding artist, for example, can copy his songs into the format and distribute over the Internet. With some savvy promotion and a little guerrilla marketing, a good artist can get a leg up on the blandness that plagues the industry. The trouble is that being discovered is a little like being the needle in the proverbial haystack. What works well for indies is a pain in the neck to major labels, since users pass around via the Net an ocean of stolen songs. Most of the music industry won't release music over the Internet until a secure standard is accepted to make sure they get paid. That leaves MP3 player owners with the only option of copying songs from their hard drives to the portable devices, which can become laborious.

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