There has been mounting concern over the past few years over whether some of the world’s largest companies – primarily big tech – pay their fair share of taxes. This issue has arisen in countries around the world leading to new digital services taxes that primarily target the U.S. tech giants and which in turn often leads to the U.S. threatening to retaliate in response. Canada now finds itself embroiled in these battles as Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has proposed a retroactive digital services tax to take effect in 2024 if by that time a newly reached OECD agreement has not taken effect. Professor Reuven Avi-Yonah is a law professor at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s international tax LLM program. He joins the Law Bytes podcast to discuss digital services taxes, the OECD deal, and what might happen if the international agreement falls apart.
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The Law Bytes Podcast, Episode 115: Reuven Avi-Yonah on the Past, Present and Future of Digital Services Taxes
Government officials and cultural groups in Quebec have been banging the drum for much of the past year for the imposition of digital sales taxes on services such as Netflix. The debate is often framed around the notion that Netflix and other Internet companies should be collecting sales tax like any other service provider. Supporters argue that other countries have begun to levy sales taxes on digital services and Canada should do the same.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes the federal government has sent mixed signals to date, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejecting new taxes on the grounds that Canadians “pay enough for the Internet”, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly seemingly keeping the door open to new taxes, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau committing to studying the issue while international standards develop.
The Canada Revenue Agency has obtained a federal court order requiring PayPal to hand over years of transactional information from all business accounts in Canada. The scope of the order is incredibly broad, covering any business account holder who sent or received a payment over a nearly four year period from January 1, 2014 to November 10, 2017. The information to be disclosed includes:
While some of these claims stem from the ongoing fear of marketplace disruption from Netflix, the tax fairness argument is a good one. In fact, many other countries or tax jurisdictions have either instituted sales taxes on foreign digital services or are in the process of doing so. For example, the City of Buenos Aires in Argentina last year passed a resolution forcing debit and credit card issuers to withhold three per cent from payments made to streaming service providers. The levy was specifically targeted at Netflix subscribers in the city and was reportedly designed to make local streaming services more competitive.
Interestingly, technically there is tax equivalency since Canadians are supposed to self-report the applicable sales tax in a self-assessment. In reality though, few are aware of the obligation and even fewer do so. Indeed, with an annual HST bill of $12.46 for a 12-month Netflix subscription, the missing dollars seem insignificant on an individual level.
Those individual bills can add up to millions of dollars, however, which may provide enough incentive for the federal government to conveniently forget the fall promise of “no Netflix tax” (which referred to a fee for creating Canadian content, not sales tax) and establish a system to require foreign digital operators to collect and remit sales tax on their Canadian sales.
Should the government embrace extending sales taxes to foreign services, the big question will lie in the implementation. The issue of creating a global sales tax system that requires foreign provides to register and remit sales taxes is fraught with complexity.
Registration requirements alone create new costs that some businesses may be unwilling to bear. In fact, some may simply decide to avoid or block the Canadian market altogether, leading to even more services that either decline to sell to Canadians or which increase their prices to account for the regulatory cost burden.
In order to avoid burdening small businesses, countries may set a revenue threshold before registration and collection requirements kick in. For example, Switzerland requires foreign digital service providers to register and collect an 8 per cent tax provided that they earn more than C$140,000 annually in income.
Even with a threshold to limit collection to larger businesses, the complexity associated with digital sales taxes is difficult to avoid. Will the collection apply solely to consumer purchases or also business-to-business sales? Will all digital sales – including virtual property in games or cloud computing services – be subject to a levy?
Given the ever-changing digital environment, the digital taxman may be on the way, but identifying what is subject to sales tax will be easier said than done.