Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, the tech giants collectively dubbed the FANGs, are hardly going to be digitally quaking in their virtual boots over British Finance Minister Phillip Hammond’s Budget announcement last week that he plans imposing a 2% Digital Services Tax on their UK related turnover. Hammond himself admitted it would only be expected to bring in around £400 million a year, the amount he coincidentally just allocated to filling pot-holes on Britain’s roads.
The UK is not alone in taking the ladle to the primordial soup of the evolving digital economy – Australia, France, Israel, Hungary, India, Italy (and the UK itself with its Diverted Profits Tax) are already at the feast, due to be joined by the EU when it is finally sick of wasting its time trying to eat the UK for Brexit.
Hammond’s hammering of the Goliaths earned kudos across the entire spectrum of British society (even the Tory-hating Guardian gave grudging praise) – but nobody seemed to pick up on the gaping irony of the whole thing – the use of a neolithic method to tackle a state-of-the-art problem.
Egged on by the 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland (to the non-Catholic citizens of which, I unreservedly apologize for using ‘British’ interchangeably with ‘UK’), the OECD and the rest of the world (apart from a possible few smelly islands once – and probably still – frequented by pirates and other undesirables) have been engaged in tackling the unfairness of the international tax system. I, for one, started out sceptical that anything could be achieved. Country-by-country reporting, the MLI modifying tax treaties, and changes in the Permanent Establishment definition are just some of the impressive advances that have been made in the last six years in the BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) project, not to mention (sorry) the automatic exchange of information.
But, there are two major gaps – the United States’ lack of enthusiasm when it cottoned on that it was a large part of the problem the others were trying to solve, and the reform of the taxation of the Digital Economy – which happened to be the first of the 15 Actions listed by the OECD.
The international tax system is founded on two principles established a century ago – ‘nexus’ and ‘profit allocation’. The first is supposed to determine where business is done, and the second, how to divide the spoils between the places of business. Fitting the digital economy into this framework is not easy. In trying to establish where value is created, three challenges have been identified: nexus, data and characterization. The first suffers from what is pompously termed ‘ scale without mass’ – you don’t need much physical presence in a country to do business these days; the second raises the question of the interactivity of data exchange – if a social platform is using data gathered from members, where the income arising from its exploitation belongs; and the third recognizes that the world is changing constantly and the classification of income needs constant updating.
In trying – so far unsuccessfully – to reach a consensus, the participating countries have broadly divided into three groups: those that believe the problem is confined to specific business models involving user participation in data (eg Facebook’s), that need to be dealt with individually; those that believe there is no problem (if you think that is strange – consider how long it took countries to realize there was going to be a Second World War); and those that think everything is completely screwed up, and we need a revolution (hopefully only in international taxation, which can be achieved using pens rather than swords). The OECD has kicked the can down the road (a game my generation played before digitalization condemned children to little screens) with the hope of reaching an agreement by 2020. Given the ‘slight’ differences between the participants, it doesn’t sound like we should be holding our breath – but I have had egg on my face before.
So, in the meantime, nations like the UK have been driven to adopting recessive taxes that would have been more familiar to the 18th century than the 21st. Its approach to the digital economy is to throw income tax out of the window (or should that be Windows?) in favour of a tax on turnover, that looks far more like the excise duty stuck on barrels of rum that smugglers didn’t manage to secrete in coves along the southern coast of England. (In fairness, it is only to be applied to companies with worldwide turnover of over half a billion pounds, and there will be exemptions for loss making companies and those with low margins).
As an English playwright wrote four centuries ago: ‘O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention’. And I doubt he paid any taxes at all.