BEPS issues in the digital economy

While the digital economy and its business models do not generate unique BEPS issues, some of its key features exacerbate BEPS risks. These BEPS risks were identified and the work on the relevant actions of the BEPS Project was informed by these findings and took these issues into account to ensure that the proposed solutions fully address BEPS in the digital economy. Accordingly,

• It was agreed to modify the list of exceptions to the definition of PE to ensure that each of the exceptions included therein is restricted to activities that are otherwise of a “preparatory or auxiliary” character, and to introduce a new anti-fragmentation rule to ensure that it is not possible to benefit from these exceptions through the fragmentation of business activities among closely related enterprises. For example, the maintenance of a very large local warehouse in which a significant number of employees work for purposes of storing and delivering goods sold online to customers by an online seller of physical products (whose business model relies on the proximity to customers and the need for quick delivery to clients) would constitute a permanent establishment for that seller under the new standard.

• It was also agreed to modify the definition of PE to address circumstances in which artificial arrangements relating to the sales of goods or services of one company in a multinational group effectively result in the conclusion of contracts, such that the sales should be treated as if they had been made by that company. For example, where the sales force of a local subsidiary of an online seller of tangible products or an online provider of advertising services habitually plays the principal role in the conclusion of contracts with prospective large clients for those products or services, and these contracts are routinely concluded without material modification by the parent company, this activity would result in a permanent establishment for the parent company.

• The revised transfer pricing guidance makes it clear that legal ownership alone does not necessarily generate a right to all (or indeed any) of the return that is generated by the exploitation of the intangible, but that the group companies performing the important functions, contributing the important assets and controlling economically significant risks, as determined through the accurate delineation of the actual transaction, will be entitled to an appropriate return. Specific guidance will also ensure that the transfer pricing analysis is not weakened by information asymmetries between the tax administration and the taxpayer in relation to hard-to-value intangibles, or by using special contractual relationships, such as a cost contribution arrangement.

• The recommendations on the design of effective CFC include definitions of CFC income that would subject income that is typically earned in the digital economy to taxation in the jurisdiction of the ultimate parent company.

It is expected that the implementation of these measures, as well as the other measures developed in the BEPS Project (e.g. minimum standard to address treaty shopping arrangements, best practices in the design of domestic rules on interest and other deductible financial payments, application to IP regimes of a substantial activity requirement with a “nexus approach”), will substantially address the BEPS issues exacerbated by the digital economy at the level of both the market jurisdiction and the jurisdiction of the ultimate parent company, with the aim of putting an end to the phenomenon of so-called stateless income.