The digital and sharing economy are borderless – but not exempt from taxes
The digital and sharing economy might be without physical or national borders – but that does not exempt them from taxes. This is the focus of the research of Giorgio Beretta, Senior Lecturer in Indirect Taxation at LUSEM and a fresh laureate of the prestigious 2021 Maurice Lauré Prize awarded by the International Fiscal Association (IFA).
Giorgio Beretta’s research addresses the legal challenges in applying European Union VAT to the new business models of the sharing economy. As Giorgio emphasizes in his work, the sharing economy – a fraction of the broader digital economy – has pushed the digital frontier farther and farther, so as to include within it even services once not capable of direct delivery from a remote location, such as accommodation and passenger transport.
“The sharing economy? I think it is a mark of an ongoing trend, in the sense that we see that digitalisation – that we initially thought was confined to the traditional digital world, like to e-books and such – in reality now is spreading to all walks of life; not just the digital spheres, but also ‘brick-and-mortar’ activities, like transportation (Uber) and accommodation (Airbnb),” says Giorgio Beretta.
He explicitly mentions two challenges with the emerging sharing economy.
On the one hand, we see the unstoppable trend of digitalisation. On this point, Giorgio considers that, nowadays, it is no longer viable to talk about “the digital economy” as such. Instead, it is more appropriate to refer to “the digitalisation of the economy”. Sharing economy services are supplied at a distance, in a cross-border scenario where two or even three countries are involved. This causes headaches with the current VAT systems, which are largely premised on the idea of the supplier and the customer being in close proximity with one another. Indeed, he notes, “the hybrid workplace that is unfolding as we exit the Covid-19 pandemic is an example of the merging of intangible and tangible dimensions of our life”.
On the other hand, the sharing economy leads to the “hybridization” of traditional legal concepts. The virtual marketplaces shaped and ruled by new digital platforms put old legal conceptualizations to the test: suppliers and customers, business and private spheres, employees and self-employed are largely no longer viable as organisational legal structures.
“Take Uber, for example. Who is, in reality, supplying what and to whom? Is Uber only an intermediate between the driver and the passenger, or is the driver to be considered an employee of Uber? Or something in between? These are scenarios that I have analysed in my book.”
Against this background, in his award-winning book, Giorgio formulates tentative solutions and possible recommendations with an aim of reforming the current European VAT system.
The topic of the sharing economy is not only discussed in academic settings. The OECD – the leading organisation in the field of international taxation – has a steering committee dealing with the VAT issues of this new sector of the economy. Earlier this year, the OECD issued a report highlighting the possibility of extending tax-related obligations to digital and sharing economy platforms.
“The OECD document is, however, just a policy recommendation without binding effects. My book was published in October 2019, and I have myself been to one of the meetings with the group at OECD. Certainly, the discussions on tax and VAT topics connected with the sharing economy do not end with the issuance of the last OECD report”, concludes Giorgio Beretta.