PARIS -- When it comes to taxes, the French are pioneers. In 1954, they introduced the world's first value-added tax. Since then, they have proposed or championed duties on all manner of other things, like online advertising, pollution, financial transactions and vacation homes.
Only a few weeks after the French Supreme Court rejected one new tax proposal -- a 75 percent levy on incomes of more than €1 million, or $1.3 million, a year -- an even more novel idea began percolating through the halls of the finance ministry last month: a proposal to tax the collection of personal data on the Internet.
Google and Facebook know that John Doe "likes" wine, is shopping for a Volkswagen and often e-mails Jane Doe. Soon, they might have to pay for gathering that information.
Does France really need another tax? As of 2009, French tax revenue was equivalent to 42 percent of gross domestic product, one of the highest burdens in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the coalition of free-market democracies. The U.S. figure was 24 percent.
But Nicolas Colin, one of the authors of a report in which the idea of taxing data collection was floated in January, insists that the proposal serves an important purpose. Like other European countries, France has been frustrated by its inability to raise significant tax revenue from the billions of dollars worth of sales and profits that Internet companies, many of them American, generate in Europe every year. Meanwhile, despite so-called austerity measures, budget deficits remain large.
"Every government needs revenues," Mr. Colin, a government auditor and technology entrepreneur, said in an interview. "If they can't get them from the most profitable companies, then they have to get them from the rest of us -- individual taxpayers and smaller, struggling companies."
Internet companies like Amazon.com, Facebook and Google, along with a number of other multinationals, stay largely out of reach of tax collectors in large European countries like Britain, France and Germany by routing their sales through smaller countries, like Ireland and Luxembourg, where corporate tax rates are lower. The companies insist that such practices are permitted under E.U. law and international taxation treaties.
France and other countries have initiated talks aimed at changing those conventions, so Internet companies could be taxed in the country where a sale takes place, rather than in the location where the transaction is recorded. But that could take many years, with no guarantee of any change.
France, on the other hand, could impose a tax on data collection unilaterally and quickly, Mr. Colin said. Yet the prospects for his proposal are unclear. While the report was commissioned by the government, it is not an official policy document, and the finance ministry has yet to take a position on the idea.
On other issues involving the digital economy, the administration of President François Hollande has sent mixed signals. After threatening Google with a law that would have authorized publishers to charge the search engine for links to their Web sites, for example, the government backed down and accepted a negotiated deal that maintains Google's existing business model, under which links are free.
The French data protection agency -- which is known by its French initials, C.N.I.L. and is independent from the government -- has been more forthcoming about the taxation proposal.
"Personal data are the fuel of the digital economy," Edouard Geffray, secretary-general of C.N.I.L., told the French version of the online magazine Slate. "Given that, it would seem like a natural idea to envision taxing the use of them."
While business models built on the promise of "Big Data" are proliferating, with established giants like Google and Facebook and a growing number of startups hoping to mine ever more detailed personal information to sell advertising or other services, so are concerns about the use of those data.
A recent study by Ovum, a research firm in London, showed that 81 percent of Internet users in France would use a "do not track" feature on Web sites if it were readily available. That was the highest percentage in any of the 11 countries surveyed.
"The privacy market is heating up," said Mark Little, an analyst at Ovum. "There is a move away from what I would call data fracking to consumers creating their own contracts governing data use, and corporations having to abide by those."
Mr. Colin said the immediate goal of the tax would be to promote sound data collection -- and protection -- practices. While the report does not specify how much revenue the tax would yield, Mr. Colin said it would probably be minimal.
"It's meant to incentivize everyone to operate at a higher level, not to raise a lot of money," he said. "You can't go from zero to collecting hundreds of millions overnight."
The main goal would be to reward companies for providing their customers with useful information, while penalizing those that do not do so, Mr. Colin said. Internet companies, for example, could be taxed if they collected "cookies" -- digital markers of the Web sites that Internet users visit -- without enabling consumers to see how the information was used. Companies that did provide that information readily would be exempt.
Analysts call such a practice "smart disclosure," because it can help consumers make informed decisions. Utilities that provided consumers with more detailed information on, for example, their patterns of electricity or natural gas consumption could help them reduce their bills.
Mr. Colin said there was no intention to stop Internet companies from collecting data.
"That would be bad for business, and it would hurt French companies, too," he said.
While Internet companies are not alone in collecting vast amounts of data, Mr. Colin made it clear that the proposal was aimed at the likes of Google and Facebook, which are making inroads in more and more areas.
"I'm convinced the telecoms, even car manufacturers, will be disrupted by these companies," Mr. Colin said. "We'd better learn to tax them before they eat the whole economy."
A secondary purpose of the proposal would be to provide leverage in the negotiations for a change in international conventions on corporate taxes, Mr. Colin said. If those were altered so that France could tax foreign Internet companies on their profits, then the data tax could be dropped, he said.
"In France, we are seen as a nation of tax lovers, which isn't always good for the French image, and isn't always true, either," he said. "But it is true that we are leaders in this area. Maybe the French government has the opportunity to make the case for accelerated negotiations."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.