Amazon lobbies to pay more tax in the US

Yes, you read that right.

The American Senate has passed – with a fairly overwhelming 70-24 majority – an early version of the "Marketplace Fairness Act", which aims to give states a route to collect sales tax for goods sold online. That progress will please one of the bill's most surprising supporters: Amazon.

In the US, sales tax for mail-order purchases is supposed to be paid in the state of the buyer, not the seller. This means that the retailer doesn't charge any tax, and the customer is supposed to declare that they owe a certain amount to their state's tax collector. In practice, of course, this doesn't happen, and purchases from out-of-state retailers are essentially tax-free.

Naturally, retailers who do have to pay sales tax – both brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers shipping largely to their own state – are unhappy with this state of affairs, as are the people in charge of trying to plug the multi-billion dollar shortfall that occurs. But the support of Amazon is less obvious: after all, the company takes advantage of tax planning measures worldwide, and ships a huge number of things across state lines, avoiding tax in the process.

But Amazon has fought this battle before. Until a few years ago, it stubbornly resisted paying sales tax, but in Autumn 2011, it switched course. Slate's Farhad Manjoo reports that:

Over the course of the next couple years, Amazon will begin collecting sales tax from residents of Nevada, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, and on July 1, it began collecting taxes from Texans. It also currently collects taxes from residents of Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota, and its home state of Washington.

As Manjoo points out, the reason for the shift is pretty clear. If you're trying to deliver things within a week or two of their being ordered, it makes sense to centralise your operations in one state to minimise your tax take. But if you're trying to deliver within a day or two – or even an hour or two – of the order, you're going to need physical locations in every state, and most major cities. And if that's the case, then you've given up your tax advantage – so it makes sense to get your competitors to give up theirs, too.

So the Amazon of today can't use the sales tax loophole, because it's not shipping out of state any more. And if it can't have it, no one else can either.

That's going to be a shock to brick-and-mortar retailers, who might have hoped that more equitable tax treatment would make competing with the company easier. But fundamentally, they are having the same problems that HMV had: Amazon isn't impossible to compete with because it avoids tax; it's impossible to compete with because it has no real desire to make a profit.

Forcing the company to pay tax may raise its prices slightly; but they will still be lower than almost any competitor could match. And the loops it jumps through to avoid that tax – like not being based in state – are things that competitors can use to their advantage. In other words, small retailers of the world: be careful what you wish for.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.