Against the Ban of Online Sales

There is a call among some of the opponents of vaping, now including the New York Times‘ editorial board, to ban the online sale of (at least) nicotine-containing liquids. Their position falls, apparently, below the rubric of halting underaged purchases. The position is not unique, as it comes up from opponents of just about any good or service.

In our age, to suggest the need to ban any common commerce from the Internet simply fails, at least before the attempt is made to find technical solutions. Online buying and selling already, or will soon, amount to at least a billion dollars per day in the United States alone. And that’s just business-to-customer, so business-to-business is likely at least as large.

Online banking is another major online commercial activity. The fact that banks trust the current security regime enough to move forward is a clear sign that restricted items such as nicotine products, alcohol, and others should be allowed via the Internet.

Indeed, pornography is regularly purchased on the Internet. But a more important analog to nicotine would be e-pharmacies. While there are some illegitimate pharmacies online, many reputable, accredited pharmacies do sell via the Internet. The FDA even has pages devoted to helping consumers “Find a safe online pharmacy.”

Given the general direction of society toward e-commerce, and that we are obviously capable of meeting the challenges it poses (which in the case of drugs include temperature control, access control, etc.), it seems that any knee-jerk argument that some goods must only be sold in person falls on its face. We already have need to have authentication and chain-of-custody in purchases. While online sales ought to be regulated appropriately, they simply must be permitted and the regulations will merely serve to strengthen the e-commerce landscape for all goods.

Okay, so what about guns? Once again, as for any other restricted good, verification should suffice. A legitimate purchase is fine. Given the broad availability of illegal guns (not to mention drugs), there is absolutely no reason to believe that Internet sales will make the problem worse.

The call for banning of online sales is akin to incorporation of so-called digital rights management into digital content. It only punishes the legitimate consumers and users of the goods and services. It does not seriously hinder anyone that wishes to skirt the law. Worst of all, it weakens the market considerably, removing opportunities for new efficiencies and growth.

So what good is a call for banning online sales? It sure sounds good. Just like DRM. To quote H.L. Mencken, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Banning of commerce, even merely through one trade route, is the use of a cleaver to remove a splinter from your finger. It is a drastic overreach, beyond the pale except in the most extreme circumstances (e.g., plutonium and uranium in the case of outright prohibition, or maybe vending machines that sold cigarettes).

Sales via the Internet simply aren’t the issue, and we have a host of products that need proper age verification and/or buyer authentication. These, at volumes large enough to justify the cost of implementing the proper controls on purchasers, require the government to step in and regulate, but in no way justify a ban.