Collecting taxes on digital exchanges is a challenge for taxation regimes everywhere. Tracking and taxing many intangibles, particularly digital goods, would require unprecedented levels of global cooperation. As the information economy gathers energy, many sources of income become themselves intangible. Consultants, creators of intellectual property of various kinds, even subcontractors for physical services can obscure their financial tracks. The technology and software to do this are now available via the Web and accessible via the desktop.
This paper outlines the issues governments face in collecting tax from digital exchanges, and how new tax avoidance mechanisms might work using a simple Web interface. It also discusses some ways governments are trying to deal with these issues. In the worst case scenario, all but the information poorest would be able to abscond from their legal taxation liabilities.
Taxation in a globalised economy forces us to think hard about what global governance might mean. Cultural norms and expectations entwine with technical and legal underpinnings to determine social and economic outcomes of the globalised information economy. In this sphere, electronic democracy becomes the flip side of the electronic commerce coin, but makes use of the same techniques. As with the provision of government services, the Web could have an important role to play in both clarifying the problems, seeking input for solutions, and monitoring the outcomes. A deeper and more mature commitment to the provision of common goods and safe services might prove a stronger carrot than the taxman"s stick.
A less welcome aspect of globalisation and new technologies is the threat of cyberwarfare, electronic crime, viruses that can invade our hard drives and "cookies" that can invade our privacy as they track our movements in the virtual world. Somewhere between lies the role of government and the rule of law, areas also subject to great challenge and redefinition in the emerging electronic world order.
Governments must be able to raise revenue if they are to continue to act as referees in the global arena. Taxation systems have been central, if not principal, sources of revenue for governments. However, the increase in world trade and international financial transactions has made some components of both governance and taxation obsolete. Already, some companies have resources which surpass those of their host nations.
Taxation relies on information systems and procedures, including agreements on reporting financial movements. Global electronic networks such as the Internet are underpinned by standards and protocols for maintaining these systems. The efficiencies and streamlining which oils the wheels of commerce can equally be applied to undermining taxation systems, and therefore governments.
At the same time, we are seeing new forms of transnational governance. The European Union is a formal governance project. But the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development may also be considered forms of governance in the sense that they are able to make and enforce more or less binding agreements between countries. Of particular importance are bodies that make binding agreements about trade in information. These groups include the World Trade Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
Currently, these international agencies struggle to reach consensus on legal and regulatory issues that relate to the information society; inevitably they lag behind technological innovation (Branscomb 1994). Likewise, national governments are caught between the desire to protect their tax bases, and the unpalatable prospect of unprecedented and intrusive information sharing across their borders. Citizen revulsion for surveillance generally outweighs enthusiasm to assist their governments with tax collection.
This paper outlines some of the currents that are shaping the global flows of information, and describes how these impact on the ability of national governments to track financial transactions and thus their ability to collect income tax. The focus is on income tax, because this clearly demonstrates how the techniques once available only to large corporations and the wealthy seeking to avoid tax liabilities might become available at more humble levels of income. A brief overview is provided of how financial transactions are migrating from private networks onto the more open environment of the Web. This may be part of the democratisation of technology and information (Friedman 2000), but it also illustrates the need for agreement on the taxation issues if the nation state is to be sustained.
First an outline of the emerging taxation environment is provided, along with an indication of how governments have been addressing matters. Several issues, namely jurisdictional and administrative issues, are considered in more detail. This leads to the impending scenario that low cost Web-based solutions could make income virtually uncollectable from all but the most disadvantaged. Several examples are presented to show how this is already technically possible without detection or prosecution. Some possible solutions are suggested which include a wide view of how governance is being redefined in an information age and the need to achieve sustainable public income.
The avoidance of taxation by large corporations, particularly privately held ones, has been well documented. Using transfer pricing, captured insurance, and other international instruments many large corporations have paid no more tax than they wanted to. Such measures long predate the Web and electronic commerce; see for example, Barnet and Muller (1974). The "pay-back" for individuals is now within grasp. The Internet allows small businesses, even tradesmen, to apply the techniques large businesses have been using for decades to avoid tax. It is now possible inexpensively and easily to make use of international structures and transactions which were previously only the domain of the rich and powerful.
In particular, the explosion of electornic commerce has partly been due to the arrival of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Previously electronic data interchange, or EDI, was mostly done over private proprietory networks. This limited its applicability to large firms. The Web has led to new languages such as XML which facililate similar transactions with much more open and accessible technologies. This not only expanded the possiblities of business to business transactions, it also opened up the potential for direct business to consumer arrangements. As has been seen with the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) in Australia, the trend is for taxation to be measurable at ever more intricate and personal levels. Inevitably, this introduces complexity and heightens risk of evasion by making tracking more elusive.
The speed, pervasiveness and elusiveness of electronic financial exchanges is
just one challenge to the documentation and reporting necessary for effective
tax collection. The ability of transmission systems to be landless, and
perhaps lawless, also fuels the retreat from accountability. For example,
data can be uploaded to satellite systems from a modem or mobile phone, with no
physical point for intercepting or controlling the information flow within the
legal jurisdiction of the data's originator.
Along with globalisation, demographics in economically advanced countries are a "tectonic plate" influencing many policies and government directions (Thurow 1996). Ageing societies and rapidly growing superannuation funds are strong international investors, and retirees are voicing a desire for more information about their investments. Those who would evade either accountability or taxation also have their eyes on these lucrative funds. Ever newer technologies are speeding up the pace of transactions, and global financial exchanges now dwarf the trade in good and services. There is substantial cooperation and collaboration in the establishment of corporate agreements on information exchange and security; for example the SWIFT system, which handles international monetary exchanges, has for many years been the world"s largest private financial network. It is now being upgraded to operate securely over the Web.
The European Union"s economic cooperation equals, and sometimes surpasses, cooperation on other governance issues. Yet even the EU is uncertain of its future tax basis, as more corporations threaten to move their operations to lower taxation nations, unless provided with substantial concessions. These forms of "tax tourism" have been accompanied by widespread falling rates of average effective taxation on corporate and self-employed profits (Martin and Schumann 1997).
Globalisation and the speed of technological change are creating competition between tax systems and opening new opportunities for avoiding or minimising taxation. Indeed, this is a key feature of globalisation. It is also widely recognised that the legal and regulatory regimes based on less information intense technologies are inadequate to address these issues, and are only moving slowly to understand them (Branscomb 1994). The availability of these mechanisms to much smaller businesses and even the average wage earner is a relatively new phenomenon. It is also much more threatening in its implications for the ability of the nation state to manage its affairs. It points towards a classic "tragedy of the commons" scenario: those who diminish the effectiveness of national taxation systems will find themselves unable to gain redress should the system fail altogether. Birrer (1997) noted this characteristic of the information society in general.
We now turn to more specific aspects of taxation. First we consider the jurisdictional aspects of the new globalised information system, and how this limits the ability of national governments to track or tax monetary exchanges. This will demonstrate why traditional reporting and enforcement tactics are inadequate to deal with the exchanges made possible by the Internet.
In The Digital Expatriate, Roger Gallo, author of the offshore living handbook, "Escape from America", [HREF4] is quoted as saying "several million Americans are now living offshore" taking advantage of generous tax laws. The article also states that telecommuting from offshore is becoming more prevalent. The Internet and improved telecommunications allow "IT specialists to perform their jobs from distances that span time zones and continents". With the growth in contract employees and consultants, more workers fall into these flexible categories.
A Brisbane based legal firm called Legalmart is an example of the internationalisation of services. They offer legal, accounting, and financial services over the Web (Bryan 2000), and hope to employ the expertise of lawyers from across Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Provided the lawyers are qualified in their appropriate countries, they can be physically located, and provide their advice, from almost anywhere in the world.
The OECD has recently determined that a website is not a PE but that a server can be. Unfortunately, this just applies the physical approach to a realm where such definitions are increasingly irrelevant. Other countries have voicec other approaches. Another problem with the "server as PE" approach is that Internet businesses can transfer to a new server in another country. This makes it very hard for a jurisdiction to keep up with the “location” of the business. Many businesses with large Internet traffic requirements will have several servers located around the world to balance the workload on their servers and congestion on the network. They all share the same domain name but at any given moment the transaction can take place on any one of them, depending on who is closest and has the capacity to accept the extra workload.
Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data suggests that almost half of the on-line purchases made by Australians were made at overseas sites. Almost a quarter of this overseas traffic was to purchase books, of which Amazon.com probably got the lion"s share. Amazon does not have a website located in Australia, let alone a server or any other physical presence. However, it does significant business with Australians. Most people would claim the source of the wealth is in Australia so any profits, (should Amazon ever realise any) should be taxed in Australia. The standard concept of PE, or even the OECD"s extension of it to include servers, is clearly inadequate for the taxation of Internet based businesses. The reality is that many enterprises conduct significant trade around the world with no physical presence in most countries.
On the other hand, Amazon might reasonably argue that it is unfair to expect them to determine their profits or losses, and subsequent tax liabilities in the 140 odd countries they may do business in. The requirement to be conversant with 140 different tax regimes and lodge 140 income tax returns each year for countries they have never set foot in would reduce the number of companies able to compete to a mere handful of large corporations. This approach would also be counter-productive and would disadvantage small companies and small nations.
Taxation authorities around the world are attempting to address the more fundamental issue of where the point of taxation fairly lies. Is it, as it is now, where the business profits are made or should it be where the consumer, (and the source of the wealth) is? If the point of taxation is where the business is located, then wealth is likely to flow to the more developed nations. Through online provision of professional services the Internet makes it possible for a modestly paid but highly educated Indian lawyer to advise American companies on international law. In such a case the wealth flows from America to the third world. But the taxation and national benefit issues are more complex.
One obvious solution is that the Indian lawyer pays Indian income tax on the American earnings. The American company obtains a tax deduction for the expense of contracting the service. However, other consequences of taxation are also relevant. From a broader equity perspective, it can be argued that the US employer should also contribute to the health insurance and retirement benefits of the off-shore employee. The combination of lower wages and no benefits may be seen as a double jeopardy for the Indian. The American company, on the other hand, which has paid less in salary, received tax deductions and incurred no liability for "extras", has scored a triple bonus.
The United States has a historical advantage in the current status quo, which it seeks to sustain. Much of world"s commerce was initially done on servers in the US and therefore the world"s Internet profits and taxes flowed to the US. On their apparent generosity in exempting the Internet from additional taxes Professor Richard Krever (2000) states that, "… the United States is the largest exporter of digitised products sold over the Internet, so it is the nations in which customers are resident rather than the United States that will bear the cost of e-commerce exemptions from consumption taxation". As the US government doesn't levee a general consumption tax it is giving up nothing. Understandably, there is little motivation within the US to alter these arrangements. Because the United States holds the balance of global power, there is a vacuum in the area of taxation reform appropriate to the new global economy. This is one of many areas where the United States has failed to exert leadership commensurate with its power (Toynbee 2000). The European Union seeks to counter this hegemony by exercising its aggregate economic bargaining power on issues such as this, thus highlighting a critical issue for global realpolitik.
The regulation and taxation of Internet gambling and pornography in Australia offers a cogent examples of the loss of taxation power through jurisdictional confusion. Rendering these activities illegal, or limiting their licences, in the case of gambling, has simply driven them offshore. In most cases, even the Internet address remains the same. The only difference is that the Australian government has lost all power to regulate or tax these activities. Citizen access and moral impact, however, does not alter.
Taxation is, of course, just one of a number of issues on which global cooperation and agreement on goals is essential. Environmental change and protection of natural resources such as water is another. Both realms involve equity and distribution of resources, and are therefore intimately tied up with taxation capability. Without leadership to focus on the underlying issues, cooperation is doubtful.
Meanwhile, a few disenfranchised countries are taking advantage of Internet technologies to establish themselves as tax havens and draw revenue from all over the world. Even the individual states in the US lack agreement about how to cooperate on tax issues. Jurisdictional issues loom large for the future of taxation. Even if these could be resolved, the administrative aspects would create additional headaches, as the next section reveals.
Given the lack of global agreement on what taxation could or should mean in the new global economy, systems to share information across borders in the ways that would be required to administer and enforce new taxation systems are not likely to become available in the near future. This implies that each country is in the situation of "inventing the wheel" as far as taxing transactions that use these new technologies. This short term blindness is the essence of a tragedy of the commons scenario. It is important to note that it is not only information based activities that can now escape the taxation net; the following illustrations show that even traditional good and services can be "laundered" through sophisticated, but widely available technologies.
In this business model a customer can make purchases from the business's web site over the Internet and pay for the items with their credit card. The transaction is processed at the computer server where an order of the item is sent to a supplier or manufacturer with the customers address for delivery. The server also processes the credit card transaction with its local bank and automatically forward the payment for the goods to the supplier. Any other business costs can be paid for out of this account and the profits transferred to a bank in another country. Preferably one with strong banking privacy rules such as Switzerland.
The profits can be invested offshore or returned to the owner, disguised as a
loan from the foreign bank. The profits can also be used for personal
living expenses by downloading value via the Internet and a PC onto a smart card
or some other form of electronic purse. This whole structure can now be
put in place from the comfort of your own home using a PC, Internet connection
and a credit card.
The The above illustration shows the scheme in outline form, but the
only person in the world that would have access to the details is the
initiator. The next example shows the same structure but this time from
the tax authority"s point of view.
As a small business, just by going offshore, you have placed huge hurdles in the way of your government knowing anything about what you are doing. With a bit of extra care as to the choice of jurisdiction of the banks and corporate structure you use, you can make it impossible. The above issues effectively make income tax virtually impossible to collect from even small businesses.
The above two diagrams show what is possible for the small businessperson to
achieve using the Web cleverly, but in reality few businesses function as a pure
e-tailer in this way. Although it is a tax auditor"s nightmare, it is
unlikely to have much impact on a country"s revenue base. The example
given below, if implemented on a large scale, is another story.
Example 3 applies to a person who may have been a salaried employee of a company for many years. By adopting the increasingly favoured contractual basis for their employment, they can use many of the devices small business can use to reduce their tax burden. The former employer still wishing to use the services of a valued employee will need to sign an employment contract with the employee/contractor's offshore management company. The contractor then signs an employment contract the management company to provide services to the original employer. In effect, the employee sub-contracts himself. The transaction can appear perfectly legitimate as the contractor has the contracts and other records to support his story. The off shore management company is just a website and once it is set up the whole process is practically automatic.
The key is not leaving a trail that would allow clear determination of who really owns the employment company. Instead of paying tax on every dollar he earns, the employee as a contractor can claim business expenses even though he is paid poorly by the (his) overseas employment agency. The rest is eaten up by profits, management fees, superannuation and insurance premiums which go into a foreign bank account; also controlled by him. This last example demonstrates the availability of similar avoidance mechanisms to small tradespeople. This sounds another loud warning system for taxation officials everywhere.
This scheme is particularly elegant, as the local plumber has a perfect set of books to show the taxman, a reasonably defensible position, and there is no way of being proven otherwise. By their nature, the uptake of such opportunities is difficult to document. International tax advisors are blatantly advertising such services, at least in Hong Kong newspapers (Australian Taxation Office, internal intelligence unit).
As outlined in the sections above, enormous levels of international cooperation and openness of reporting would be necessary before tax authorities could expose these sorts of schemes. Once in place, these provisions for information sharing about taxation issues would equally apply to the large scale transactions that power the global economy. This would be deemed "destabilising" and would not be likely to gain political support from the governments that host these corporations. The next section why even the best intentions to address electronic tax issues are often doomed to failure.
Tax evasion tends to be a cat and mouse game, as the techniques on both sides leapfrog over each other. Due to the nature of global commerce and the slowness of governments to adapt, it does seem that electronic leger de main currently has the upper hand. However, governments are not likely to simply watch passively while their tax bases evaporate. Some of the approaches they have taken are outlined below, along with some specific evasion tactics already in operation, which use advanced information technology.
Nonethesless, national and international cooperation is increasing. In Australia, AUSTRAC, the government"s specialist financial intelligence and anti-money laundering regulator, has been modestly successful in persuading the major banks to co-operate in supplying financial transaction and international wire transfer information in a usable format (Fisse and Leonard 1997)[HREF7] .
One driver of cooperation is the growth in offshore funds. Firm data on off shore investment is difficult to document, but it is estimated over 1 trillion dollars (US) are invested in offshore funds, and the number of funds has increased by more than 1400% over the last 15 years (Owens 2000). [HREF8] Also, foreign direct investment by G7 countries in a number of jurisdictions in the Caribbean and in the South Pacific island states, generally considered to be low-tax jurisdictions, increased more than five-fold over the period 1985-1994. [HREF9]
Such adventures raise the possibility of purpose built tax free Internet cities. Dubai Internet City [HREF11] describes itself as "the world"s first free trade zone for IT, e-business and the media." Presumably, one of their benefits will be a mutually comfortable tax situation for investing corporations. This may be a smart "hedge" against the day when the oil runs out. But will they have an incentive to cooperate with the OECD on these issues?
This approach also assumes that banks themselves resemble the recognisable institutions of our childhoods. Underground banking makes a mockery of this assumption, again, aided by technology. Miami is reputed to be the defacto banking and financial capital of South America. The continued existence of tax havens undermines efforts to track transactions through banks. New "banks", which may just be covers for money laundering, arise even as others shut down. $5000 will get you a banking license in Nauru (Ballantine 2000).
Alternative banking systems are another variation on how to deter transparency in financial transactions. Relatively little is known about these systems but they abound in the Arab and Oriental societies. The Hawala or Hawallah, is an Arab banking system that probably pre-dates the Western banking system. The system dates to the time of Arabic traders as a means of avoiding robbery.
There are also Hundi, Fei Ch"ien, Poey Kuan, Chiti, and Chop Shop banking systems across Asia and India and where ever their cultures are found. One Internet search, conducted by the authors, on the word Hawala found a site in California run by a Pakistani offering to transfer money to Pakistan.
Many of these underground banks now have links to drug trafficking and political bribery. New technologies are having an explosive impact on the evolution of Asian underground banking. As much as US$2 billion a year may be flowing through Pakistan"s underground Hundi system (Lambert 2000) [HREF12].
So far, attempts to expose, monitor, regulate, or legalise these traditional
systems have been ineffective. They are too entrenched with the local
cultures and politics that protect them. Their experimentation and
adaptation of new technologies is likely to provide them with both greater
markets and greater obscurity.
In an attempt to reduce the perceived competitive advantage that non-European Union sellers would have in selling VAT free intangible goods into their jurisdiction, the EU have put forward a proposal that those sellers must collect the tax (Hardesty 2000). [HREF14] This is a good example of governments floundering when trying to find solutions to the challenges presented by the Internet. In the proposal put forward by the European Union, the non-EU seller would have to register in one EU country and collect VAT on all sales of intangible goods to consumers that are resident in any EU country. An overseas software seller would be able to register in Luxembourg as they have the lowest VAT, at 15%, on software of any EU country. This would still give them a competitive advantage of 10% over their Swedish counterpart who is required to withhold 25% VAT on software sale. A Swedish consumer buying from a non-EU seller would get a 10% discount over what they would pay locally and the 15% VAT would go into the Luxembourg treasury. This scenario is unlikely to be popular with Swedish taxpayers.
Even if acceptable, such solutions suffer the same problem with other international tax laws: difficulty of enforcement. How does a country effectively impose its will, and legislative requirements, on a company outside its jurisdiction? In the above example it can be assumed that Luxembourg would not only have to accept money being sent to it from all over the world, but would also have to enforce the law on all the sellers across the planet registered in its jurisdiction. This also assumes there will be no satellite-based sellers in the future.
Besides the normal legal questions of how do you enforce your collection and remittance laws in a foreign country, there are more profound technical problems to overcome. The most basic is, how do the tax authorities know a transaction has taken place? There is no incentive for either the non-EU seller or the EU consumer to inform the authorities of the transaction. In fact there is a 15-25% disincentive for compliance. There is no physical evidence or audit trail and no records to which the tax authorities would have access.
If the EU's main concern is the loss of competitive advantage then maybe they should consider "leveling the playing field" by removing the VAT from intangible goods and services delivered over the Internet. In April the Council of Europe published a draft of a proposal that had the potential to allow Police officers to remotely search a persons computer system through the Internet without their knowledge or a search warrant. It may even make it legal to conduct these searches across international boundaries in the countries that sign the treaty (Giussani, 2000). [HREF15] How draconian will the solutions be? Will the cure be worse than the disease?
In sum, existing frameworks for government to get a share of the money which is swirling around the world are running well behind the pace of technological change. Perhaps it is time to consider more radical approach, which recognises the reality of the technological and political context in which governments struggle to maintain their revenue bases.
In the near future, however, an incremental solution which leads to positive
feedback loops is perhaps the best hope for taxation. Thus, governments
need to continue their efforts for greater cooperation to achiever international
exchange of information agreements and provide enhanced transparency of
financial transactions. The benefits of these agreements would presumably
lead to further cooperation. In the meantime, other possibilities may
assist government to remain solvent.
While some might claim that such an approach is wildly inequitable, the evidence of the growing inequities (and iniquities) of the present system give pause. There is even some evidence that distribution of wealth is relatively unresponsive to government mechanisms overall, and that increasing the overall flow of money more widely throughout the economy, is more effective (Buchanan 2000). In any case, it is unlikely that humans will be able to eschew the need to provide certain collective benefits, such as health care and education, collectively. This implies systems of both governance and taxation.
While abandoning income tax would create many problems, perhaps there would also be some benefits, such as the inherent simplicity of the system. There would, in theory, be reduced costs of compliance and administration. The application of automated systems could be designed in as part of the expansion of electronic commerce initiatives. Enforcement of physical taxation would also require increased surveillance at borders, with added benefits as a result. Even the most intense privacy advocates do not favour illegal imports of drugs and weapons. People smuggling, and the sometimes tragic consequences, could be minimised. There would be enhanced opportunities to impose environmental safeguards, as unwanted parasites and the shippling of toxic wastes could also be screened. In short, there would be many positive synergies from a reinforcement, in one area, of pre-information age rules and standards.
This proposal to drop income tax and all its complexities may appear ludicrous to some. Workable alternatives may arise, and should be considered, like this one, with an open mind. The search for methods of addressing the looming lack of sovereignty and income for nation states must be taken as seriously by government taxation authorities as the efforts for evasion are being taken by the unenlightened few. The issues described in this paper need to be addressed from a broad perspective that recognises the need to educate and inform about tax and its role. Part of this would be measures to make governments more accountable for how they spend their income. While obvious, this may be the vital in avoiding the emergence of a large class of 'digital expatriates' (Conley 2000) [HREF16] and the unfortunate implications that would have.
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