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VAT in the Digital Age: Part III – VAT and the Platform Economy

Charles Riordan
March 25, 2022

In the European Union, the VAT rules around supplies of goods, as well as ’traditional’ two-party supplies of services, are well-defined and established. Peer-to-peer services facilitated by a platform, however, do not always fit neatly into the categories set out under the EU VAT Directive (Council Directive 2006/112/EC). There are ambiguities around both the nature of the service provided by the platform operator, and the status, for tax purposes, of the individual service provider (i.e., a driver for a ride-sharing service, or an individual offering their property for rent on an online marketplace). This creates a unique challenge for VAT policymakers.

The EU Commission has recently opened a public consultation on VAT and the platform economy to address these issues. We have previously discussed other initiatives proposed by the Commission including a single EU VAT registration and VAT reporting and e-invoicing. This blog will discuss the underlying challenges policymakers face and the specific proposals set out in the consultation, which could significantly impact digital platform operators and users.

Digital platforms and existing VAT law

A threshold question for the VAT treatment of digital platforms is whether the platform merely connects individual sellers with individual customers – i.e., acts as an intermediary – or whether it actively provides a separate service to the customer. This question is significant because services rendered to a non-taxable person by an intermediary, under Article 46 of the VAT Directive, are sourced to the location of the underlying transaction.

In contrast, services provided to a non-taxable person under a taxpayer’s name are sourced either to the supplier’s location or, in certain circumstances, to the customer’s location. Whether a particular platform is acting as an intermediary can be very fact-specific and can depend, for example, on the level of control exercised by the platform over pricing or user conduct.

To further muddy the waters, there are potential ambiguities for VAT involving:

  1. Whether platform operators act as disclosed or undisclosed agents of individual sellers, or
  2. Whether services of platform operators, to the extent they are not intermediary services, are electronically supplied, and thus sourced to the customer’s location.

A final source of ambiguity is whether an individual service provider qualifies as a taxable person when making only occasional supplies; this could raise the question of whether said supplies would attract VAT.

These ambiguities present an obvious challenge to the consistent VAT treatment of platforms across the Member States.

Proposed solutions

As part of its public consultation on “VAT in the Digital Age”, the EU Commission has proposed several solutions to the challenges listed above. Of these, three proposals directly address the ambiguous nature of services provided via platforms:

  1. An EU-wide “clarification” of the nature of the services provided by platform operators
  2. A rebuttable presumption for the status of service providers who use platforms
  3. A “deemed supplier regime” for digital platforms – similar to what exists now for platforms that facilitate supplies of goods

These proposals aim to provide clear guidelines to Member States on how platform services should be categorised, and, therefore, which VAT rules should apply under the Directive. Perhaps the most direct is the “deemed supplier” proposal, which would attach VAT liability to platform operators under defined circumstances.

A “deemed supplier regime” already exists for platforms that facilitate sales of low-value goods in the EU, so it is likely the Commission will seriously consider this option. Notably, the public consultation solicited comments on three different permutations of the deemed supplier regime, differing only in the scope of services covered.

Whichever direction the EU ultimately goes in, it is clear that a significant change is on the horizon for digital platforms. Platform operators and platform users should pay close attention to these ongoing consultations in the coming months.

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Author

Charles Riordan

Charles Riordan is a member of the Regulatory Analysis team at Sovos specializing in international taxation, with a focus on Value Added Tax systems in the European Union. Charles received his J.D. from Boston College Law School in 2013 and is an active member of the Massachusetts Bar.
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