A tax for the digital world?

In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).

Up to now, their profits have been very hard to tax because the companies operate in many countries and use accounting techniques, such as transfer pricing (see the blogs Disappearing tax revenues: how Luxembourg saves companies billions and Starbucks pays not a bean in corporation tax, thanks to transfer pricing), to declare most of their profits in low-tax countries, such as Luxembourg. One way of doing this is for a company’s branches in different countries to pay the head office (located in a tax haven) a ‘royalty’ for using the brand.

The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.

The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:

In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.

The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.

It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.

There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’

Articles

Government documents

Questions

  1. How do multinational digital companies avoid profit taxes (corporation tax in the UK)?
  2. Explain how a digital services tax would work.
  3. Why is a digital services tax likely to be set at a much lower rate than a profit tax?
  4. Explain the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
  5. Would it be possible for digital companies to avoid or evade such taxes?
  6. Is there a possibility of a prisoners’ dilemma game in terms of seeking international agreement on such taxes
  7. How does a digital services tax differ from a sales revenue tax