The Digital Economy is So Taxing

– By Stephen Díaz Gavin and Claudio Palmieri

Economic activity is not only transnational, but increasingly digital.   A business is physically located in one country, sells goods or services in another country and then declares its profits in yet a third country?  Who is the taxing authority? Where is the transaction taxed and to which government do taxes get paid? This has never been a simple question internationally, but in today’s digital world, where borderless transactions are more frequent and more common, the leaders of the G-20 countries, in the Summit declaration of 18-19 June 2012 in Mexico, decried the consequences of these developments — tax base erosion and profit shifting to lower-tax jurisdictions.  Even the proposed U.S. tax reform currently before the U.S. Congress addresses concerns about tax base erosion.

In 2013 the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (“OECD”) began a project to combat tax base erosion and profit shifting and the first action item of their Final Report of 2015 concludes the digital economy cannot be considered separate from the rest of the economy for tax purposes – it is increasingly becoming the economy itself.   Significantly, the OECD believes solutions lie not so much in creating new rules, but adapting existing regulations to address the new, digital environment.  Meanwhile, the European Union and some countries in Europe are making their own provisions for dealing with changes caused by the digital economy. With its Communication of September 2017, A Fair and Efficient Tax System in the European Union for the Digital Single Market, the European Commission (“EC”) announced a legislative proposal for the Digital Single Market in Europe, that is intended to be available for implementation if an adequate, ready and preferably international solution inside the G-20/OECD project framework is not implemented.  The two main policy challenges addressed by the EC are: (1) where to tax digital services provided by companies with little or no physical presence and (2) what is taxable (e.g., the value created by intangible assets, data and knowledge).  While a long term approach is favored, the EC is focused on short term measures to address some of these problems quickly such as a tax on untaxed or insufficiently taxed income generated from internet-based business activities (whether creditable against the corporate income tax or as a separate tax); a standalone gross-basis withholding tax on certain payments made to non-resident providers of goods and services ordered online; a levy on revenues generated from the provision of digital services or advertising activity.

In addition to European-wide solutions, some individual countries are also attempting to address the taxation of the digital economy.  For example, in September 2016, a bill was introduced before the Italian Parliament regarding tax measures applicable to competition in digital commercial activities (DDL S.2526 “Misure in materia fiscale per la concorrenza nell’economia digitale” del 10 novembre 2016).  The bill would not only reinforce the powers of Agenzia delle Entrate, the Italian governmental agency which collects taxes and revenue, but would introduce a “hidden permanent establishment” (“stabile organizzazione occulta”) concept which would consider revenues generated from certain types of international transactions, as income generated in Italy. For example, fees paid to non-Italian companies by Italian consumers for the purchase of software licenses distributed on the Italian market. Thus, if a U.S. company engages in online business regularly, with greater than 500 transactions in any six-month period and collecting more than € 1 Million in that same period, that company would be considered to have a “hidden permanent establishment” subject to tax by the Italian authorities.  In addition, the proposed Italian 2018 Budget Law (not yet adopted), includes a proposal for a 6% web tax on services provided by nonresident companies and individuals on revenues generated from the sale to Italian residents  of fully “dematerialised services” (e.g., intangible services such as video and audio downloads).

The common theme in these new proposals in the European Union and EU member countries suggests that governments will look increasingly to tax where economic value is delivered.   If your business is part of the digital economy you clearly need to monitor these developments and pay attention to the legislative and regulatory initiatives being considered at the national, regional and multinational levels, especially in Europe, an important market and one which appears to be moving more quickly than other regions of the world.  You can read the full Client Alert on this issue and if you need more information, have questions or would like assistance, the International Practice Group at Rimon, with an office in Rome, is particularly well suited to serve your needs.  Feel free to contact Stephen Díaz Gavin, Partner based in Washington, DC and Rome or Claudio Palmieri, Counsel to Rimon and principal of Studio Legale Palmieri – Rimon Italia,  based in Rome.   Of course, you can always contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or any of the lawyers at Rimon with whom you regularly work.

 

Inter Net Neutrality

What an interesting play on words.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “inter” is a verb that means “to deposit (a dead body) in the earth or in a tomb.”

Earlier this week, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) outlined plans to bury the Internet rules promulgated under the Obama administration that required providers of Internet services to treat all web traffic equally.  Those rules, among other things, limit the ability of ISPs to favor content or customers, to block or slow down the online services they provide.  Under the proposed changes, ISPs (wired and wireless) would be allowed to offer web-based services at different speeds and differing quality of service.  In addition, they could enable more favorable speed or quality, or both, for websites that paid a fee – as long as that relationship was disclosed.

Over the years, a lively and heated debate over the nature and extent of regulation needed to protect consumers without stifling innovation has continued.  Proponents of eliminating the rules claim that allowing the market to create different financial and performance models will spur investment and the development of technology, while critics argue that consumer prices would increase and so would barriers to entry and start-up costs for new companies.  Critics point to the airline industry (where the FCC net neutrality rules have never been applicable) as an example of the potential for harm – one U.S. air carrier provides easy access to one online video service which has paid the airline for such priority status, while others are not enabled with the same speed or quality.

Under the previous administration, the Internet and ISPs (both wired and wireless) were treated as utilities, virtually excluding them from regulatory oversight by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), whose fact-based, case-by-case, analytical approach to regulation is generally perceived as more suitable (and friendly) for emerging technology and evolving markets.  Based on Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks, in another reversal of the prior administration’s approach, it appears the FCC is now willing to share oversight with the FTC and have the FTC be responsible for monitoring ISP disclosures, determining if consumers are being harmed and determining whether these firms are engaging in anti-competitive or unfair trade practices.  The FCC indicated it plans to enact the new rules early in the new year.  Stay tuned.

If you have any questions or want more information about this or any Legal Bytes’ post, don’t hesitate to contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, a New York based partner at Rimon, P.C., or any of the other lawyers at Rimon with whom you regularly work.

 

 

Net Neutrality: Is the Cease Fire Over?

By Stephen Díaz Gavin  *

The way the U.S. Government regulates the Internet is back in play again. The outcome of the long running battle over “net neutrality” and regulation of the Internet – now more than 15 years old — is still uncertain. However, it is clear that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is stepping back from the stronger supervision of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) adopted in March 2015 under former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at the insistence of former President Obama.
On May 18, 2017, the FCC voted to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to step back from the agency’s controversial March 2015 decision to treat ISPs as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. Instead, the “proposed rule,” will revert to classifying ISPs as providers of an “information service” and return jurisdiction over ISPs privacy practices to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – a clear indication of the direction the FCC will take under the current administration.
Law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003.  As the FCC’s current Chairman Pai recently noted in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, the term “[i]s one of the more seductive marketing slogans that’s ever been attached to a public policy issue”.  Who can be against “leaving the Internet alone?” (“Why ‘Net Neutrality’ Drives the Left Crazy,” Wall Street Journal).   Apparently, many believe that it should not be left alone: the FCC received nearly 1.25 million comments submitted via the Internet in the three weeks following FCC Chairman Pai’s announcement that he intended to reconsider the Title II rules; nearly all opposing the proposal.
At the core of the dispute is the tension between the ISPs on the one hand, and streaming content providers like Netflix and Amazon, as well as Internet giants like Google and Facebook on the other.
Consumers fear a slowdown in service. The ISPs maintain the March 2015 common carrier regulation decision will stifle investments and ultimately produce what consumers fear:  a slower Internet.  Indeed, in the NPRM the FCC cited a decline in investment since the March 2015 Order in support of changing the rules.  The clash of interests highlights how outdated the old ways of government oversight of telecommunications have become. The Communications Act of 1934, was originally enacted to monitor the monopoly telephone provider at the time (ATT), based on the model of regulating railroad service and freight rates under the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 – hardly a relevant basis for overseeing the backbone of 21st century technology.
The common carrier regulatory model prohibits additional charges for streaming content providers, which could be viewed as discriminatory. However, such a regulatory structure does not account for how ISPs pay for upgrades to maintain service quality as consumer demand increases for such content streaming.  Video content producers that stream large volumes of data, slow up Internet connections. Although the largest ISPs have agreed voluntarily not to charge the Netflix and Amazons of the world for doing so, where must the money come from in order to continue to upgrade capacity to maintain high speed download?  Retail consumers are concerned about higher rates, surcharges or deliberate “slowing” of service, yet these same consumers are customers of over-the-top online video gaming and streaming services that consume huge amounts of capacity.  Consumers always want more and faster service and they want it at the lowest price.
Given the current Republican majority, the FCC will likely eliminate Title II regulation of ISPs as it has proposed.  However, the decision can and will again be challenged in the courts (as has every prior rule on net neutrality).  Even if upheld by the courts, only Congress can define ‘net neutrality’ once and for all and give some degree of regulatory certainty to the regulations (which can be changed by a Democratic majority just as easily as the current Republican controlled FCC has done to the Obama era rules).
Net neutrality is now a hot political issue and despite current Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, it is uncertain whether a working majority in both exists that can adopt legislation to guide the FCC.  No matter who you are, in the debate over net neutrality, clearly nobody is neutral. Until Congress acts to give some greater definition to the term, successive FCC Chairmen will be able to reinterpret net neutrality as they see fit.

* This post was derived and adapted from a Rimon Law Client Alert “No Peace in Sight for Net Neutrality” by Stephen Díaz Gavin, who you can contact directly for more information.  

mHealth – Mobile Health Care

Last year, I was invited to participate in and present a paper at the “mHealth and the Law Workshop” in Washington, D.C. [See mHealth – The Future of Mobile Health Care].

Then last month, I was invited to participate in a panel at the Mobile FirstLook 2015 Conference in New York, and as a result of my participation, the editors of Mobile Marketer asked if they could republish (with attribution of course), the paper.

In case you missed it, you can view “Exploring legal challenges to fulfilling the potential of mHealth” online, or you can download the original from the Legal Bytes posting above.

As always, if you have questions, or need advice or guidance, just contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or the lawyer with whom you regularly work at Rimon.

Health Care in the Clouds: Not Always Fine on Cloud 9

Many of you are already familiar with the series of individual and topical cloud computing white papers that we launched in 2011. We spent the next months and years compiling these articles into a comprehensive work entitled, “Transcending the Cloud: A Legal Guide to the Risks and Rewards of Cloud Computing.”

The Consumer Finance Law Quarterly Report previously published two of our articles associated with “cloud-related” legal issues: The first applicable to financial services [65 Consumer Fin. L. Q. Rep. 57 (2011)] and the second related to advertising and marketing [65 Consumer Fin. L. Q. Rep 431 (2011)].

Recently, Joe Rosenbaum and Nancy Bonifant were privileged to have an article they wrote published as the third in the Consumer Finance Law Quarterly Reporter’s cloud computing series, and you can read the article right here: “Health Care in the Cloud: Think You Are Doing Fine on Cloud Nine? Think Again. Better Get Off My Cloud” [67 Consumer Fin. L. Q. Rep 367 (2013)]. The article represents an updated version of the article originally posted right here on Legal Bytes [See Transcending the Cloud – Health Care on Cloud 9? Are You Doing Fine?].

For more information about the implications of cloud computing and technology on health care, privacy compliance, and related legal matters, feel free to contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or Nancy Bonifant or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work, and we can make sure you get the guidance and help you need to navigate the clouds.

Entertainment Media Crowd Funding Oscar (No, Not That One)

In 1918 there were no Academy Awards. But there was another Oscar! Oscar Micheaux, who taught us something about financing media and entertainment projects – perhaps the first crowd funding entrepreneur in the publishing and motion picture industry.

If you would like to know more about crowd funding and what’s new and what’s next (and about Oscar), you can read about it in Volume 25, Issue 3 of the Entertainment Law Review, where an article about crowd funding, authored by Joseph I. Rosenbaum, was first published by Sweet and Maxwell in London (a Thomson Reuters (Professional) UK Limited company.

You can read Joe’s entire article or download the PDF for your own personal use (i.e., not for redistribution) right here: Crowd Funding – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Investment Bank. [PDF]

As always, if you want to know more about Crowd Funding (or any other matter requiring legal representation, counsel or guidance, please contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.

Social & Mobile & Clouds, Oh My!

Joe Rosenbaum recently authored an article that has been published in the Small Business Journal highlighting some of the key issues that have arisen for small to medium-size businesses as a result of the emergence and convergence of these rapidly evolving technological platforms. Joe’s article, “Social & Mobile & Clouds, Oh My!” appears in the March 2014 issue of the Small Business Journal, and you can read “Social & Mobile & Clouds, Oh My!” [PDF] here as well.

If you require legal guidance, support or representation on the issues highlighted in the article, or on any other matters, you can contact Joe directly at joseph.rosenbaum@rimonlaw.com; or you should get in touch with the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work. We are happy to help.

Crowd Funding. Apologies, William Wordsworth

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,”

. . . and so begins the beautiful and timeless poem by William Wordsworth. Although Wordsworth’s crowd was a host of golden daffodils, the crowds most of us have been hearing about lately are either crowd sourcing (check out When Online Games, Health & Life Sciences and Crowd Sourcing Combine) or crowd funding – the subject of this post.

In today’s world, according to the Wikipedia definition, “crowd funding” refers to the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.”

There remains some confusion in the marketplace as to the mechanisms by which the crowds’ funds are made available to business ventures, film promotion and production, worthy causes, and civic organizations. Contrary to what many may believe, it is currently not legal to solicit, offer or otherwise make available any form of securities or equity investment (I’m over-simplifying, but that is the net effect) through online, crowd or other web-based funding schemes. In other words, you can’t raise equity or solicit investments through crowd funding that provide the expectation of profit or the risk of loss of capital investment – in much the same way the traditional stock markets function when they allow individuals to purchase and sell securities.

It is true that the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission has been talking about promulgating regulations aimed at legitimizing, with regulation and oversight, the use of crowd funding as an investment opportunity (and the SEC has publicly announced that it hopes to have the regulations released for comment this fall). But until the regulators promulgate rules and enable it, you can’t “invest,” and businesses and other ventures can’t “raise capital,” through equity or securities offerings through crowd funding.

So what’s the buzz about. Well, first it combines “power to the people” with “put your money where your mouth is” in ways unheard of prior to the Internet! Second, there are still opportunities to raise capital from the public in ways that aren’t illegal and don’t involve equity or securities. Currently, there are four major categories of crowd funding activity. To wit:

I am a musician (not really, it’s just an example) and I tell you that if you pay me $1,000, I will write a song to or about you. If you pay me $5,000, I’ll not only write the song, but if I’m nominated for a major music award (e.g., Grammy, VMA, CMA), I’ll get you two tickets to the awards show. That is referred to as the ”rewards” model of crowdfunding.

Next is the ”pre-payment” model. Please send me $5 and when the song is completed, but before it’s released and available to the general public for $7, I will send you a copy. If I offer to autograph it for another $3, I’ve combined the pre-payment and rewards model.

Then there’s the cause-related model. Listen, I am talented and you love good music, but I’m starving. Please just send me $10 so I can eat, rent recording studio time, and try to publish and distribute my music. Pure online begging – there is no expectation of anything in return.

Last, but not least, the ”loan” model. Please help finance the production of my music, my tour (I’ll send you a T-shirt) and just lend me some money. I promise to pay you back when I start making money – but, WITHOUT interest. There must be no expectation that anyone who lends money will make a profit (interest) on the loan. While there may still be lending laws that apply as to how this is done, it won’t trigger the prohibitions under securities’ laws, as long as you don’t pay interest.

In conclusion, while there are some high-profile examples of projects that have raised millions through crowd funding, most do not – at least not yet. In fact, most commercial ventures raise very little through crowd funding. In the words of Wordsworth: “A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company. I gazed – and gazed – but little thought, What wealth the show to me had brought.”

Is Your Currency Current . . . Virtual, Digital, Crypto?

In recent months, “virtual currency” has been making headlines. Most of us don’t really think about what “virtual” currency means and often confuse it with other forms of money. That said, there is good reason for confusion and concern. Like many other technology-driven innovations, lines are blurring and we know blurring lines means opportunity and danger. So Legal Bytes will tackle this in two parts. The first (below) attempts to describe what all these new terms mean and how they are used. Legal Bytes part two (later this week) will summarize current events – the confusion and concern over exactly what all this means to our economy and why you should care.

Virtual currencies got their start in virtual economies that exist in virtual worlds. For example, in massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, players “earn” credits and have the ability to exchange, use or “spend” this virtual “value” in the game environment, to acquire virtual tools, weapons, skills and game items that may be recreationally fun and integral to game play; but virtual currency never bought you food to eat or housing to shelter you in the real world. HOWEVER, what happens when real people start buying, selling and exchanging virtual currency, and create markets that interact with the real world?

First, let’s get our terms straight. Digital currency is not “virtual.” Digital currency represents a real alternative to government-issued currency. It originated with accounts or promises to pay that were used primarily online. One of the most familiar paper-based examples of a non-government promise to pay is the American Express® Travelers Cheque. More than 100 years old, these payment instruments are backed purely by the full faith and credit of American Express – and not the government of any nation. They aren’t backed by gold or silver or precious jewels or even bananas – just a corporate obligation to repay you, based on a contract (the purchase application form) you sign when they are purchased! As you might have noticed, there are multiple forms of these types of digital promises – one, like its paper-based cousin, is simply a digital promise to pay: numbers representing value backed by the issuer – electronic gift cards, a promotional advertisement that can initiate or enhance a digital music subscription, are examples. In other instances, digital money may be based on some real “deposit” (e.g., using a traditional debit or credit or checking account) in which the transferred funds are held in an electronic account, uniquely identified to the user and more closely resembling a “bank account,” with which most consumers are familiar.

In most jurisdictions, companies that issue digital versions of payment instruments (e.g., Travelers Cheques) or that hold digital financial accounts (e.g., PayPal®) often fall within some banking or financial regulation. For example, in the United States, PayPal is considered a payment intermediary, regulated as a money transmitter under the U.S. Federal Code of Regulation and the various state laws that apply to money transmitters. That said, PayPal is not technically regulated by the Truth-in-Lending Act (TILA) or its implementing Regulation Z, nor by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, implemented by Regulation E; and although PayPal takes great pains to protect against fraud, in the United States, unless you use a credit card (or debit card) to fund a PayPal transaction, consumers have no technical legal or regulatory protection from fraud by a seller. In Europe, PayPal (Europe) Ltd., was licensed by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) as an Electronic Money Issuer, and in 2007 transferred all of its European accounts to Luxembourg to a new entity PayPal (Europe) Sàrl et Cie SC, which is regulated by the Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier.

Some of you history buffs will remember DigiCash (originated by David Chaum in 1990), which sought to anonymize financial transactions using cryptography. Well over the past few years, a company named BitCoin (and others such as Litecoin and PPCoin, which are to a greater or lesser extent based on, inspired by, or technically comparable to BitCoin), have launched and popularized a form of digital currency that is often confused with and referred to as “virtual.” This form of digital currency is referred to by financial and security experts as “cryptocurrency.” Cryptocurrency is a digital currency that uses encryption technology to create and manage the digital currency. They are peer-to-peer and decentralized in nature and, at least for now, all are pseudonymous.

As you can guess, all of these confusing terms and the fact that virtual currency in games, gaming, online social media and networking platforms, and virtual world environments began interacting with the real world, has become not merely confusing but alarming. Look at Second Life, a virtual world that allows the purchase and sale of “Linden Dollars,” the in-world official currency, in exchange for real money through third-party websites. Second Life accords both virtual “real estate” and intellectual property real value in its virtual environment; enables “residents” (avatars) to creatively enhance and customize the resources available in-world; allows some property rights to be exclusive or limited (think supply and demand); and permits the exchange and purchase and sale of virtual property rights in-world; and one’s property remains one’s property (and one retains Linden Dollars until spent or given away or used) throughout the life of one’s avatar – at least as long as Linden Laboratories continues to maintain the Second Life virtual world environment.

These are many of the same conditions that affect real financial systems. No wonder that what started as a curiosity – online digital playgrounds with no real money or value being exchanged – have become complex economic environments that financially interact with real world economic systems and are causing concern among legislators, regulators and courts around the world. In part two, Legal Bytes will review recent developments and try to describe the challenges facing legal, financial, security and business professionals.

…And Now a Word from Your Hedge Fund

This post was written by Frederick Lah.

This past Wednesday (July 10), the SEC voted 4-1 to approve amendments to Rule 506, lifting the 80-year ban on advertising for hedge funds and certain other investments (See, SEC Votes to Ease 80-Year-Old Ban on Private-Investment Ads.) Rimon previously reported these amendments when they were initially proposed in August 2012, and you can read our earlier analysis, SEC Regs Amended To Allow Hedge Funds To Advertise: Potential Data Privacy Implications.

Under the revised Rule 506, hedge funds and other issuers seeking to conduct private offers may now use general solicitation and advertising to offer their securities, provided that: (1) the issuer takes reasonable steps to verify that the purchasers are accredited investors; and (2) all purchases of the securities fall within one of the categories of persons who are accredited investors, or the issuer must reasonably believe that the investors fall within one of the categories at the time of the sale.

To be an accredited investor, the individual’s net worth must exceed $1 million, excluding the value of a primary residence, or the individual’s annual income must exceed $200,000. According to the SEC, the determination of the reasonableness of the steps taken to verify that the investors are accredited is an “objective assessment” by an issuer. An issuer is required to consider the facts and circumstances of each investor and the transaction. The final rule provides a non-exhaustive list of methods that an issuer may employ for verification.

As noted in our previous analysis, it is unlikely we’ll see hedge funds competing with large consumer brands for prime advertising space. Instead, given the target audience, we’ll likely see more tailored efforts, such as email marketing campaigns, direct phone marketing, and targeted online advertising. We are also likely to see new strategies from issuers such as speaking about funds in public and posting details on websites (which may represent quite a change considering many issuers don’t even have websites). As issuers enter into the world of marketing, they will also have to deal with the reality that the SEC is not the only regulatory agency on their radar; these issuers will need to make sure that they’re not engaging in unfair or deceptive marketing practices and drawing the ire (and an investigation or enforcement action) of the FTC.

The amendments become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. For more information on this issue, please contact Frederick H. Lah, the author, or Joseph I. Rosenbaum, editor and publisher of Legal Bytes.