This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

House Outlaws an Urban Legend
May 17 2000 12:00 AM PDT

Pssst . . . have you heard the one about the modem tax? Frightened by a long-standing urban legend, U.S. citizens have been badgering their representatives for years about a nonexistent congressman who was supposedly eager to impose a steep per-minute charge on Internet access. Yesterday, Congress prohibited the FCC from ever imposing such a tax, whether proposed by real or unreal congresspersons. The FCC issued a polite "thank you" and reiterated for the skillionth time that it has no intention of levying any such charge.

News outlets disagreed about how long the legend has been circulating. The New York Times said "nearly two years," Reuters "at least a year," and TechWeb "over a year." In fact the legend's roots date to 1987.

Many papers, including the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times, ran some flavor of a story by the AP's Curt Anderson. (The Journal added a bylined sidebar with a link to the bill's text - and a typo in the URL.)

The New York Times and TechWeb covered the story straight. TechWeb's Mary Mosquera wrote that the hoax "generated more response from constituents than some real issues." Most everyone quoted Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell's sound bite: "What we are considering today is a fabricated solution to an imaginary problem," while the Journal's Glenn R. Simpson favored this Dingell gem: "I am not convinced that mounting a massive counterattack on a fictitious bill ... is the best use of this committee's time." Most outlets related the bill to last week's action in the House extending the moratorium on Net taxes.

Wired and CNET took a different tack on H.R.1292, writing about the fears raised by a last-minute clause slipped in without debate. The clause: "Nothing in this subsection shall preclude the Commission (FCC) from imposing access charges on the providers of Internet telephone services ..." H.R.1292's sponsor said the addition merely clarified the bill's original intent, which was to cover data and not Net telephony. CNET's John Borland wrote that the legislation "is raising new fears that lawmakers could open the door to new fees on Net telephone services." Writing in Wired, Elisa Batista was even more blunt, claiming in the lead paragraph that the legislation "allows the government to impose per-minute charges for online voice services."

Far from stamping out an urban legend, the legislation may to give rise to new variants of it. Ready now? Forward this to everyone you know. - Keith Dawson

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