Never slow to burnish his reputation as an iconoclast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed funding France's state-owned television stations by taxing an activity economists and communications experts have come to consider almost sancrosanct: the use of the internet. The announcement came Tuesday during Sarkozy's first full-blown solo press conference at the ElysÃ©e palace. As part of his plan for rationalizing the state's sprawling audiovisual empire, the President suggested "we consider the total suppression of advertising on public channels", and that income lost from the ad ban be compensated in part by "an infinitesimal sales tax on new communication methods, like internet access and mobile telephony." Freeing state television stations from ratings-sensitive advertising, Sarkozy said, would allow public TV to quit trying to match the popular but mind-numbing game shows and reality television that now dominate the schedules of private broadcasters for what Sarkozy called "purely mercantile" reasons.
Instead, public broadcasters could focus on quality documentary, educational, and fiction programming. "This is a revolution that, by changing the economic model of public television, would change the entire nature of cultural policy in our communication society," Sarkozy said. The snag in the idea is that taxing web use is widely stigmatized as a sure way to stunt economic growth. "Generally speaking, taxing the Internet is considered a bad idea, and a potential brake to net use and development," says Audrey Mandela, founder of the independent London consulting agency Mandela Associates. "But without knowing the details of the French proposal, it's difficult to say how problematic an Internet tax there would be."
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