May 19, 2024

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UK presses ahead with digital tech tax in spite of pressure from Trump


US tech companies are likely to be among the most impacted by the British tax.

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The UK announced on Wednesday that it will start taxing digital services from April 1 2020 — a move that will impact a broad spectrum of US tech giants, including Amazon, Google and Facebook.

The tax will amount to 2% of the revenues of search engines, social media services and online marketplaces that derive value from UK users. Known as the Digital Services Tax, or DST, it will apply to all digital services with global revenues of £500 million ($647M) or more, with at least £25 million ($32M) deriving from users in the UK. It’s expected to bring in £65 million ($84M) this year, and around £87 million ($113M) annually. 

The tax was expected to feature in the government’s 2020 budget statement on Wednesday, but was instead announced in a policy paper published on the government’s website. 

The UK’s decision to press ahead with taxation comes amid efforts by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to reform international tax rules, which will likely result in digital companies being taxed more widely around the globe, amounting to an estimated $100 billion annually. Some countries, namely the UK, France and Spain (which approved a tax plan last month), have decided that they will implement their own tax rules while waiting for globally agreed measures to come into play.

But unlike France, which in January agreed not to start collecting the new tax until the end of 2020 after it was threatened by the US with tariffs, the UK will start collecting tax next month.

The British government has previously insisted that the tax is not discriminatory against the US, as it applies to all large digital companies, not just those in the US. But with the majority of companies affected by the tax based in the US, the decision to push ahead with taxation is still likely to increase tensions between the two countries. Speaking at Davos in January, US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the US would likely retaliate with a levy on UK car exports.

At the time of writing, Trump had not responded to the UK’s announcement, and representatives for the White House did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Current relations between the US and UK are already on rocky ground, following the decision taken earlier this month by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep using equipment made by Chinese company Huawei in non-core parts of the country’s 5G infrastructure. Ahead of the decision, the US previously exerted significant pressure on the UK not to keep using Huawei equipment in line with its own policies, and warned that intelligence-sharing agreements were on the line. The UK’s failure to comply with this request reportedly resulted in a tense phone call between Trump and Johnson, following which Johnson canceled a planned visit to the White House.

Tensions between the US and UK over tech issues are arising at a delicate moment in time. The two countries are supposed to work together to negotiate a trade deal later this year, following the UK’s departure from the EU in January.

The arrival of a digital tax is also unwelcome news for the wider tech industry. Tech lobbying group Information Technology Industry (ITI), whose members include Amazon, Apple, Ebay, Google, Facebook Snap and Twitter, issued a statement on Wednesday expressing its disappointment in the decision and asking the government to rethink its approach at this critical juncture.

“At a time when the US and UK governments are poised to initiate negotiations aimed at deepening their trade and investment relationship, we urge the UK government to reconsider its national digital services tax and recommit to reaching a lasting, multilateral solution at the OECD,” said Jason Oxman, ITI’s president and CEO.

In the proposals published on Wednesday, the government said that it still believed that reaching an agreement with OECD on reforming international corporate tax rules was the most sustainable, long-term solution. Its own digital tax is therefore designed to serve as interim measure, and will no longer apply once an “appropriate international solution” is put in place, it said.

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