How major tech companies exploit tax laws: A focus on Ghana and Nigeria
When World Trade Organisation (WTO) officials designed the territorial taxing rights back in the 1920s, not many people imagined that a century later; these guidelines would still underpin the international tax system.
Today, highly digitalised companies such as Facebook and Google are able to operate internationally from their tax havens, making billions while paying very little in the form of taxes.
In 2018, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) made over US$40bn total revenue in Africa, Europe and Middle East region (EMEA), but while the European Union (EU) is pushing ahead with policies to increase taxes from the growing slice of the digitalised economy, the African Union (AU) has trailed.
Many African countries have expressed concerns about profit shifting by big tech companies and the decades-old physical presence rules in today’s increasingly digitalised economy.
Mustapha Ndajiwo, Executive Director of the African Center for Tax and Governance has proposed some viable options available to African countries in addressing this challenge.
He argues that African governments can make domestic laws to deal with digital tax and or work closely with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to seek an international consensus on digital taxation.
Facebook & Google
To stave off unilateral action by countries who want to introduce domestic legislation, Dave Wehner, Facebook’s chief financial officer in a blog post 2017 promised that Facebook’s, “advertising revenue supported by local teams will no longer be recorded” by their international headquarters in Ireland, but will instead be “recorded by the local company in that country,” by the first half of 2019.
The statement was misleading; however, as it relied on exploiting the major flaw in the territorial taxing rights mechanism, which argues that a company is taxable on its business profits only if it has a physical footprint in a resident jurisdiction.
Facebook has over 130 million users in Africa, with Nigeria and Ghana alone accounting for over 22 million active users. By virtue of its highly digitalised business model, shortcomings in the current transfer pricing rules and outdated WTO territorial tax mechanism, the company will probably not pay any taxes in Nigeria and Ghana, as has been the case in the past.
A Facebook company spokesperson in an email said that, “Facebook pays all taxes required by law in the countries in which we operate (where we have offices), and we will continue to comply with our obligations.”
Facebook has no office in Ghana and Nigeria and does not provide country
by country report of its revenue from Africa. For residents of Ghana
and Nigeria who purchase Facebook advertisements online, the revenue is
billed in Ireland, which has been described by the EU parliament as a
Google, has also over the years been accused of developing a very sophisticated approach in the use of tax havens to avoid payments of taxes and profit shifting. (A Google spokesman in Nigeria declined to comment for this story.)
According to documents filed at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in December 2018, Google moved $22.7bn through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017. The amount channeled through Google Netherlands Holdings BV was about $4bn more than in 2016, the documents showed.
The subsidiary in the Netherlands is used to shift revenue from royalties earned outside the US to Google Ireland Holdings, an affiliate based in Bermuda, where companies pay no income tax.
Impact, Ghana & Nigeria Approach
Executive Secretary of the international organization, African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF), Mr. Logan WORT, who was interviewed at the sidelines of the recent Pan-African Conference on IFFs and Taxation in Nairobi explained that the practice where digital companies, “strip out their profit before they then declare their profit- and then pay a vastly reduced tax” is a “huge disadvantage” to brick and mortar companies who must comply with local tax laws. ATAF provides a platform for cooperation among African tax authorities.
A review of the current taxation laws in Ghana and Nigeria also showed that media and advertising companies are mandated to pay a corporate tax rate of 22 percent and 30 percent respectively. These costs are not incurred by Google and Facebook although they earn quite significant portion of their returns from the Africa region.
So far in 2019, Facebook has made over $4 billion in advertising revenues from what it labels “rest of the world,” which includes Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Apart from South Africa where Facebook is expected to pay corporate taxes because of its physical presence, the remaining 53 countries on the continent will unlikely receive any direct payments in the form of taxes. (Source: Facebook Shareholder’s report, 2019)