Global plan to prevent tax avoidance by tech giants like Apple, Facebook

NEW YORK • International leaders have advanced a plan to prevent large multinational companies like Apple, Facebook and Amazon from avoiding taxes by shifting profits between countries.

It is an effort to de-escalate a global battle over how to tax the digital economy.

The framework proposal, released on Wednesday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), will allow countries to tax large multinational companies even if they do not operate inside their borders.

If international negotiators can now reach an agreement on its key details, the plan will pave the way for new taxes not just on tech companies, but also on automakers and any other large multinational firms that operate online.

Political and corporate leaders have clashed in recent years over how - and where - to tax companies that operate across national borders, particularly those that sell goods and services online.

Traditionally, companies pay taxes in the countries where their economic activity is generated. But in the digital economy, firms can "move" the source of their profits to countries where tax rates are extremely low.

Many countries, particularly those in Europe, have moved to curb that practice by approving new taxes on large multinational companies that sell to their citizens but pay little or no tax to their countries.

France approved a new digital tax this year that would hit large United States tech companies like Google.

The Trump administration responded by threatening tariffs on imported French goods, such as wine, before the countries agreed to pause their plans in hopes of finding a multilateral agreement through the OECD.

Wednesday's release brought an 18-page framework plan that officials hope will form the basis of an international agreement on digital taxation as early as next year.

That framework would fundamentally alter how and where companies that operated across national borders were taxed, though it leaves the details of those tax rates to future negotiators.

It suggests new rules on where companies should pay taxes - largely based on where their sales occur - and which profits are subject to taxation.

"In a digital age, the allocation of taxing rights can no longer be exclusively circumscribed by reference to physical presence," the framework states.

"The current rules dating back to the 1920s are no longer sufficient to ensure a fair allocation of taxing rights in an increasingly globalised world."

The framework applies only to multinational firms with annual revenues of about US$825 million (S$1.1 billion) or higher.

It excludes manufacturing suppliers and resource extraction companies, such as oil companies.

The framework appears to be a victory for large, consumption-heavy countries such as the US, China and much of Western Europe, and a loss for so-called tax havens like Ireland.

Advancing the negotiating process is a win for large multinational firms, even though a final deal could put them on the hook to pay more in taxes, because the alternative appears to be country-by-country digital taxation that could be expensive to comply with.

"Amazon welcomes the publication of these proposals by the OECD, which are an important step forward," its spokesman said on Wednesday. "Reaching broad international agreement on changes to fundamental international tax principles is critical to limit the risk of double taxation and distortive unilateral measures."

A US Treasury Department spokesman said on Wednesday that America "is studying the OECD secretariat's proposal, and is actively engaged in the process aimed at forging a consensus on international tax issues", before reiterating the administration's opposition "to unilateral digital services taxes".

The framework will be taken up for discussion by finance ministers from large countries, who are due to meet in Washington next week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2019, with the headline 'Global plan to prevent tax avoidance by tech giants like Apple, Facebook'. Print Edition | Subscribe