The “taxation of the digital economy” is currently at the top of the global international tax policymaking agenda. A core claim some governments are advancing is that user data or user participation in the digital economy justifies a gross tax on digital receipts, new profit attribution criteria, or a special formulary apportionment factor in a future formulary regime targeted specifically at the “digital economy.” Just a couple years ago the OECD undertook an evaluation of whether the digital economy can (or should) be “ring-fenced,” and concluded that it neither can be nor should be. That conclusion is consistent with the findings of the European Commission High Level Expert Group on Taxation of the Digital Economy.
Importantly, concluding that there should be no special rules for the digital economy does not resolve the broader question of whether the international tax system requires reform. The practical reality appears to be that all the largest economies have come to agree either that a) there is something wrong with the taxation of the “digital economy,” or b) there is something more fundamentally wrong with the structure of the current international tax system given globalization and technological trends. The IMF also strongly endorses the idea that fundamental reform of the international tax system is necessary.
Currently four proposals for reforming the international tax system are being discussed at the OECD. My paper (which predates the OECD consultation paper) is intended as a ‘second best’ exploration of some of these ideas. First, I consider whether “user participation” justifies changing profit allocation results in the digital economy alone. I conclude that applying the user participation concept in a manner that is limited to the digital economy is intellectually indefensible; at most it amounts to mercantilist ring-fencing. Moreover, at the technical level user participation faces all the same challenges as more comprehensive and principled proposals for reallocating excess returns among jurisdictions. Second, I consider one such comprehensive international tax reform idea, loosely referred to by the moniker “marketing intangibles.” This idea represents a compromise between the present transfer pricing system and sales or destination-based reforms to the transfer pricing regime. I conclude that splitting taxing rights over “excess” returns between the present transfer pricing system and a destination-based approach is complex, creates new sources of potential conflict, and requires relatively extensive tax harmonization. This conclusion applies equally to user participation and marketing intangibles. If such a mechanism were nevertheless pursued, I suggest that a formulary system for splitting the excess return is the most manageable approach. Third, I consider “minimum effective taxation” ideas. I conclude that, as compared to the other two policy options discussed herein, minimum effective taxation provides a preferable path for multilateral cooperation.