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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.