Platforms and blockchain to bring on beneficial disruption to taxation

Digitalisation and platform economy are usually perceived as a challenge to taxation as it is difficult to monitor and enforce taxation in the digital and global economy. New rules are needed for deciding which activities are taxable and which are not in the in sharing, collaborative and platform economies. A recent US study points out that platform businesses such as Uber and Airbnb have an impact on all three of the major categories of revenue sources: consumption taxes, income taxes and property taxes. The situation is especially relevant for Nordic countries, where the tradition of a strong tax base has been the precondition for an affluent society. The main goal is to develop taxation so that the platform economy can strive while ensuring sufficient tax revenue without compromising innovativeness.

The platform economy could, however, be the solution to these new challenges. If we have a more comprehensive look at taxation, expanding from acute challenges to long-term system-level opportunities, platforms together with blockchain and artificial intelligence technologies could help reform and improve taxation systems.

Why is this important?

Tax authorities around the world are urgently trying to find short-term and long-term fixes to the challenges linked to digitalisation and platforms. The sharing economy is one of the areas, where heated debates have accompanied the introduction of new tax measures (see e.g. Finland, France, Sweden, the US or Australia). Approaches vary from exempting small-scale peer-to-peer activities from taxes to treating gig workers as business owners or considering ride-sourcing equal to taxi travel. The importance of the issue is put into the scale in a study by PwC, estimating the value of transactions in Finland’s collaborative market in 2016 to over 100 million euros.

The European Union (EU) has been active in surveying tax challenges in the digital economy and collaborative economy. Counter measures are being designed and implemented by the Member States respectively, but joint actions and strategies on a European level and globally are also needed to ensure fair operating environment. The EU agenda stresses that all economic operators, including those in collaborative economy, are subject to taxation either according to personal income, corporate income or value added tax rules.

While the authorities are baffled, so are the individual users and producers of platforms. We are currently in a paradoxical situation, where online platforms rely on digitalisation and automation, yet the related tax procedures, deductions and declarations are largely a manual and messy burden.

Things to keep an eye on

The responses from tax authorities do not, and should not, limit to quick fixes within current tax schemes but also explore long-term considerations on principles of taxation and novel means to implement them. Examples of progressive ideas include the suggestion of a specific tax on digital economy and taxation of platforms based on bandwidth or other activity measures such as number of users, flow of data, computational capacity, electricity use or number of advertisers. It has also been proposed that tax rates should differentiate according to the origin of revenues to better steer platform-based business: a different tax burden for revenues generated by one-time access and another tax rate for revenues generated by data exploitation.

Curiously enough, the challenge could be turned into the solution, as the platform economy especially together with blockchain and artificial intelligence technologies could provide the means to more efficient future schemes of taxation. One key problem is that information of and data from platforms does not reach tax authorities. By employing blockchain and distributed ledger it would be possible to remove the need for any intermediary and improve transparency and confidentiality. For example, blockchain applied to payroll would enable removal of businesses as a middle man and allow automatic tax collection using smart contracts. And having data in distributed ledgers would enable analysis of that data for monitoring of tax compliance and horizontal communication between authorities among other things. In fact, blockchain has been argued to provide solutions from digitalisation challenges ranging from anonymity and lack of paper trail to tax havens.

Another forward-looking idea to taxation from the world programmable economy domain involves smart contracts, cryptocurrencies and programmable money, such as Bitcoin or ether by Ethereum. These are currently perceived as a source of trouble to tax authorities, but what if they were soon to be the favoured choice and solution promoted by the state as an active party? This would mean tax authorities having access to the information on payments, on which employers would be obliged to report. Authorities could thus stay on-track in real-time even when the banking and currency system grows more and more decentralised. Furthermore, even national tax planning and writing could be transformed using artificial intelligence and machine learning in time.

Selected articles and websites

Australian Taxation office: Providing taxi travel services through ride-sourcing and your tax obligations
Australian Taxation office: The sharing economy and tax
EUobserver: Nordic tax collectors set sights on new economy
European Commission: A European agenda for the collaborative economy and supporting analysis
European Parliament: Tax Challenges in the Digital Economy
France Stratégie: Taxation and the digital economy: A survey of theoretical models
IBM: Blockchain: Tackling Tax Evasion in a Digital Economy
Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP): Taxes and the On-Demand Economy
Kathleen Delaney Thomas, University of North Carolina Law School: Taxing the Gig Economy
OECD: Addressing the Tax Challenges of the Digital Economy
PWC: How blockchain technology could improve the tax system
Sitra: Digitalisation and the future of taxation
Sky Republic: Automating & Assuring Trust Using Enterprise Blockchain in the Era of the Programmable Economy
Skatteverket: Delningsekonomi – Kartläggning och analys av delningsekonomins påverkan på skattesystemet
TEM: Jakamistalous Suomessa 2016 – Nykytila ja kasvunäkymät (Collaborative Economy in Finland –Current State and Outlook)
The Financial: Artificial Intelligence to transform tax world
Verohallinto: Jakamistalous
Wikipedia: Bitcoin
Wikipedia: Ethereum
WU & NET Team: Blockchain: Taxation and Regulatory Challenges and Opportunities, Background note

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd
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Gig economy

The new ways of working enabled by platforms are referred to with term such as gig economy, on-demand economy or open talent economy. What is common to all of these is that they redefine the relationship between the employer and employee. While connecting supply and demand of work through a platform is nothing new, there is currently a massive growth in the size of the gig economy, fuelled by increasing online access and willingness to do disparate tasks.

Why is this important?

The welfare system, especially in the Nordic Countries, is based on the assumption of a steady employment with one employer. The current legislation and regulation is not capable of dealing with the new ways of working emerging from the platform economy as traditional criteria for what is considered as taxable income or work regulated by labour legislation no longer fits the scheme. Is everyone an entrepreneur in the platform economy or should the platform be viewed as an employer? How can social security and fair working conditions be ensured?

Gig economy proponents highlight the flexibility and freedom that platforms provide for the worker as well as the company. Especially SMEs benefit from the gig economy, as they are often agile enough to recruit quickly and are more prone to experience changing demand. Critics state that the work is unstable, isolating, stressful and devoid of welfare benefits. Gig economy favours highly skilled people with good health and thus may contribute to societal polarization. Furthermore, it is driving wages down globally, as platforms enable outsourcing of a variety of tasks, thus expanding the global marketplace.

Things to keep an eye on

To ensure fair and decent working conditions, a mix of regulation, new practices and worker collective action is required. The big benefit but also the central challenge with gig economy is that it is global. Regulation puts countries at different positions and workers have a tough time coming together and bargaining in a dispersed global network. For new practices and ways of operating, platform cooperatives are worth keeping an eye on.

For a company wanting to benefit from gig economy the focus should be on improving human relation practices. Employing should be swift and there should be a good balance between full-time and temporary workers. Different metrics to gauge employee satisfaction and working conditions should be in place and up-to-date.

Selected articles and websites

What’s After The Gig Economy? The Talent Economy
What the Gig Economy Looks Like Around the World
How The Gig Economy Will Change In 2017
The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself To Death
Harnessing The Power Of The Open Talent Economy
10 Ways the Gig Economy Can Help Small Manufacturing Businesses
LinkedIn Finds Small Businesses Driving Gig Economy
Ukko.fi saa tuhat uutta asiakasta kuukaudessa – “Lainsäädäntö ei pysy mukana”
Mistä on kevytyrittäjät tehty?

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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5G

Why is this important?

5G – 5th generation wireless systems – improves the speed, capacity and energy-efficiency, and reduces the latency of wireless data transfer. This is important for platform economy, because it enhances the opportunities for mobile and ubiquitous digital services as well as enables the high data transfers required by some internet of things (IoT) solutions.

Things to keep an eye on

Because 5G is currently being driven by mobile video and IoT, it requires new kinds of revenue models. In some applications there are huge amounts of data transfer, while some IoT solutions might require only a few bits per month. Thus there is a direction towards more integrated solutions, where the 5G connectivity is only one part. The drivers of the development of 5G could thus be in automotive, energy or health care industries. Another thing to keep an eye on is how regulation supports or restricts the development in different parts of the world.

Selected articles and websites

Imagining the 5G Wireless Future
Huawei: Automotive and energy industries driving 5G and IoT, not telcos
5G for Europe Action Plan
5G Is Coming, But 4G Isn’t Going Away Any Time Soon
5G Test Network in Oulu

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Airbnb’s homesharing clubs

Airbnb has been encouraging people who let their apartment through Airbnb to organise themselves into local ”homesharing clubs”. One main motivation behind this is to fight the increasingly strict regulations set by cities on renting apartments through Airbnb and similar services.

Why is this important?

While Airbnb is especially challenging the hotel industry, perhaps the main motivation for cities to restrict the service is the consequent rise in rental prices in downtown areas as well as losing control on the inflow of tourism. Airbnb has fought against regulations before, but the homesharing clubs are a different strategy, as they engage the local hosts to lobby for more favourable regulation. This is different from the attempts by some Uber drivers to unionize themselves, as this is driven by the platform owner, Airbnb, itself.

Things to keep an eye on

The problems with homesharing are systemic in nature and thus difficult to solve. Letting one’s apartment can provide additional income, but it can also lead to rising rental prices overall. Homesharing clubs and local organisation in general is a good idea, but the key question is whose interests the clubs represent: the platform owner’s, the hosts’ or the community in general? How this tension plays out indicates where the platform economy is heading in different regions: to delaying the inevitable, towards winner-takes-all markets, to locally and communally owned platforms, towards platforms as commons or to some other direction.

Selected articles and websites

Airbnb faces worldwide opposition. It plans a movement to rise up in its defence
Bringing People and Places to the Table
Airbnb hosts protest new rental law outside New York governor’s office

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Crowdfunding

Why is this important?

Crowdfunding projects have in the past has been mostly associated with consumer products and not an equity investment. According to Catherine Clifford, of Entrepreneur Magazine, “Crowdfunding is, at its heart, driven by a grandiose, ideological utopian vision of a democratization of finance in which the power of the purse strings is pulled down from the elite circles of legacy hierarchy and put in the hands of the people. It’s born of a rather anti-venture capital ethos”.  But a major change in US  Security Exchange Commision rules has opened the door to equity crowd funding via Reg A+ rules (Read Ruling). Chance Barnett of Forbes estimates that crowdfunding will surpass venture capital: “Just five years ago there was a relatively small market of early adopters crowdfunding online to the tune of a reported $880 million in 2010. Fast forward to today and we saw $16 billion crowd funded in 2014, with 2015 estimated to grow to over $34 billion. In comparison, the Venture Capital  industry invests an average of $30 billion each year”. Crowdfund insider predicts that more and more companies will pursue equity crowdfunding, including new industries such as Agriculture, Sports, Energy, Transportation, and Biotech. Part of this growth is driven by cheap digital tools.

Things to keep an eye on

In Finland, the status of crowdfunding has been problematic, but now the situation is improving, as the government is proposing a new law on crowd funding, which should come into action in July (VNK). The new law clarifies the guidelines and makes it easier for companies to use crowd funding. Nordea has already started a crowdfunding platform for growth companies (Nordea). In addition, a crowdfunding platform for piloting and experiments was proposed in a report to the Prime Minister’s Office (VNK). In the energy sector, there are interesting examples of using crowdfunding for financing new solar power plants, such as the Finnoonportti project by Joukon Voima. Crowdfunding thus is seen to be a tool to fund startup companies aiming for growth as well as enable societal experiments or achieve a shift in the existing system.

Selected articles and websites

Crowdfunding in 2016: Five Predictions
10 Secrets of Highly Successful Crowdfunding Campaigns
An Unlikely Romance Between a Venture Capital Fund and a Crowdfunding Platform Promises to Shake Up Startup Financing
Spurring on the startup industry
Next Generation Crowdfunding Starts May 16. Expect Opportunity and Growing Pains.
How crowdfunding can help save Silicon Valley from its harebrained investors
Proposal: Funding platform for piloting and experiments
Nordea to introduce crowdfunding service to the market

Victor Vurpillat

Global X-Network

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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