For all countries the question of tax base erosion and profit shifting during a period of tremendous growth in e-commerce has been important as countries struggle to secure funding sources in a rapidly changing global marketplace. Concerns about tax revenue sources has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as e-commerce has surged and may countries tax revenues have shrunk which stimulus outlays have soured.
For a number of years the OECD and the G20 have been working with many other countries in what is called an integrated framework to examine how international taxation needs to change to reflect the changed economic environment. The U.S. unhappiness with many trading partners on the question of digital service taxes is the early adoption of taxes on digital services before the completion of international negotiations and, in particular, taxes which appear to the U.S. to discriminate against U.S. companies who often are major global players in e-commerce and digital services.
In a post from early June, I reviewed the actions of the United States in response to actions by trading partners to introduce digital services taxes (DST), including a first investigation under section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended (“section 301”) on France on their DST and the initiation of investigations under section 301 on nine other countries and the European Union. While USTR had identified additional tariffs of 100% on a variety of French products, the imposition of duties was postponed until January 6, 2021 to give negotiators time to reach an agreement within the OECD. See June 3, 2020: Digital Services Taxes – New U.S. Section 301 Investigations on Nine Countries and the European Union, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/03/digital-services-taxes-new-u-s-section-301-investigations-on-nine-countries-and-the-european-union/.
Earlier this week, USTR issued three reports on three countries from the 2020 investigations — on India, Italy and Turkey. Parts of the USTR press release are copied below and, similar to the report on France, found the DSTs of the three countries were discriminatory to U.S. companies, contrary to international tax principles and burden or restrict U.S. commerce. See USTR press release, USTR Releases Findings in DST Investigations,
“Washington, DC – The U.S. Trade Representative has issued findings in Section 301 investigations of Digital Service Taxes (DSTs) adopted by India, Italy, and Turkey, concluding that each of the DSTs discriminates against U.S. companies, is inconsistent with prevailing principles of international taxation, and burden or restricts U.S. commerce.
“The findings on each of the DSTs are supported by comprehensive reports, which are being published today on USTR’s website.
“USTR is not taking any specific actions in connection with the findings at this time but will continue to evaluate all available options.
“The Section 301 investigations of the DSTs adopted by India, Italy, and Turkey were initiated in June 2020, along with investigations of DSTs adopted or under consideration by Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. USTR expects to announce the progress or completion of additional DST investigations in the near future.”
Similarly, on January 7, 2021, USTR announced that it was postponing introduction of tariffs on French products that were due to kick in on January 6 to provide the agency with the ability to coordinate its actions based on the results of the other ongoing investigations. See USTR press release, Suspension of Tariff Action in France Digital Services Tax Investigation, 01/07/2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/january/suspension-tariff-action-france-digital-services-tax-investigation. The press release is copied below.
“Washington, DC – The U.S. Trade Representative has determined to suspend the tariff action in the Section 301 investigation of France’s Digital Services Tax (DST). The additional tariffs on certain products of France were announced in July 2020, and were scheduled to go into effect on January 6, 2021. The U.S. Trade Representative has decided to suspend the tariffs in light of the ongoing investigation of similar DSTs adopted or under consideration in ten other jurisdictions. Those investigations have significantly progressed, but have not yet reached a determination on possible trade actions. A suspension of the tariff action in the France DST investigation will promote a coordinated response in all of the ongoing DST investigations.
“The suspension of the France DST tariffs is set out in a notice sent for publication in the Federal Register.”
The three notices on the India, Italy and Turkey investigations were sent to the Federal Register on January 6 and will appear in the Federal Register next week. The same is true on the postponement of tariffs on France which was forwarded yesterday to the Federal Register and which should appear next week as well.
The three USTR reports released on January 6 and the four notices sent to the Federal Register by USTR on January 6 or 7 are embedded below.
The OECD/G20 Integrated Framework talks
The OECD/G20 Integrated Framework negotiations on arriving at tax policies for an increasingly digitalized global economy have been ongoing for a number of years and include 137 countries.
The OECD/G20 Integrated Framework project released a series of reports on policy issues and approaches to address international taxation in the age of digitalisation in early October to address base erosion profit shifting (“BEPS”) and have moved the target date for completion from the end of 2020 to mid-2021. The reports released attempt to address at least some of the U.S. concerns. The OECD has sought public comments, received more than 270 comments and is holding a virtual meeting on January 14-15 in an effort to obtain public input to refine the draft documents and help resolve remaining issues. The 11th plenary meeting of the 137 participating countries of the OECD/G20 Integrated Framework will be held virtually on January 27-29.
A series of documents released in October that permit a better understanding of the complexities involved in seeking a way forward are listed next. For non-tax readers, the “Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions” is a good primer on the issues and challenges. See OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS, Addressing the Tax Challenges Arising from the Digitalisation of the Economy, HIGHLIGHTS, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/brochure-addressing-the-tax-challenges-arising-from-the-digitalisation-of-the-economy-october-2020.pdf; OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, Tax Challenges Arising
from Digitalisation – Report on Pillar One Blueprint, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/tax-challenges-arising-from-digitalisation-report-on-pillar-one-blueprint-beba0634-en.htm; OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, Tax Challenges Arising from Digitalisation – Report on Pillar Two Blueprint, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/tax-challenges-arising-from-digitalisation-report-on-pillar-two-blueprint-abb4c3d1-en.htm; OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS, PUBLIC CONSULTATION DOCUMENT, Reports on the Pillar One and Pillar Two Blueprints, 12 October 2020 – 14 December 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/public-consultation-document-reports-on-pillar-one-and-pillar-two-blueprints-october-2020.pdf; OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, Tax Challenges Arising from Digitalisation – Economic Impact Assessment, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/tax-challenges-arising-from-digitalisation-economic-impact-assessment-0e3cc2d4-en.htm; OECD, Tax Issues Arising from Digitalisation, Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions, October 2020, https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/top-10-frequently-asked-questions-tax-challenges-digitalisation.pdf; Public consultation meeting on the Reports on the Pillar One and Pillar Two Blueprints (Date 14-15 January 2021), https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/public-consultation-meeting-reports-on-the-pillar-one-and-pillar-two-blueprints.htm; 11th meeting of the OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS (Date 27-28 January 2021 (Inclusive Framework plenary); 29 January 2021 (Tax and Development briefings)), https://www.oecd.org/tax/beps/oecd-g20-inclusive-framework-on-beps-meeting-january-2021.htm.
To understand some of the concerns of U.S. businesses or business groups with actions of particular trading partners, a review of several comments to the OECD/G20 may be useful. I embed below comments from the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, Amazon and the Business Roundtable. The Amcham Ireland paper comments on non-discrimination, multilateralism, administrability and certainty, avoiding double taxation, durability, efficiency, scope, safe harbour, segmentation and the interaction with the US’s Global intangible low-taxed income (GILTI). Amazon explores issues in the two pillar blueprints dealing with segmentation, sourcing, user location/IP address, business-to-business sales, reasonable steps/evidence requirements, double tax relief, dispute prevention and resolution, marketing and distribution safe harbour, GILTI Co-existence, framework for implementation, double-tax relief, application of STTR, and additional areas for simplification. The Business Roundtable (BR) has an overview section in which they “affirm certain principles of international income taxation” as being critical to a strong and growing global economy. One of the principles is that taxation should be of net business profits, not gross revenue. BR also provides seven comments on specific aspects of Pillar One and/or Two which are similar to concerns raised by the other U.S. interests. Comment 4 states “An agreement on Pillar One must include repeal of existing unilateral measures and a commitment to refrain from imposing any new unilateral measures aimed at profit reallocation or the digital economy.” It is the unilateral actions of trading partners that are perceived to discriminate against U.S. companies, often base tax on revenue versus profit and deviate from other established international taxation principles that is causing concern in the U.S. business community and resulting in U.S. investigations under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended.
With the Trump Administration in its last twelve days, it is unknown if USTR will be able to complete the remaining seven 301 investigations on Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Spain, and the United Kingdom to accompany the three reports released on the 6th of January dealing with India, Italy, and Turkey and the earlier report and proposed action on France. My guess is that this will be a primary focus of USTR in the next week and a half so that a full set of reports is available and possibly a recommendation for action on all eleven reports. Whether the remaining investigations are completed by January 20 or not, the Biden Administration will be confronted with the ongoing OECD/G20 process with a target completion in the front half of 2021 and a host of governments implementing DSTs unilaterally ahead of any agreement among the Integrated Framework members. Action under 301 is an option should trading partners pursue approaches to DSTs that in fact discriminate against U.S. companies or deviate from what the OECD/G20 process is likely to generate as a final package.