GST and the offshore digital economy


Imposing Goods and Services Tax (GST) on the digital economy has been a hot topic this year as New Zealand retailers push for equal GST treatment between local and foreign suppliers.

At present, foreign providers of cross-border services and intangibles (including music, e-books, videos and software purchased from offshore websites) do not have to pay GST on sales to New Zealand based consumers. This puts local based providers at a substantial disadvantage because they have to charge GST, which will, at a minimum, increase their prices by 15 percent when compared to foreign competitors.

Currently, whether or not GST applies to a particular transaction depends on a number of factors, such as the location of the supplier or where the services are performed. Because most e-tailers are not based in New Zealand, and their services are not performed from New Zealand, GST does not apply.

This issue is not isolated to New Zealand, with many countries facing similar GST/VAT non-collection issues. Given the significant revenue at stake, governments worldwide have a vested interest in reform. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has released guidelines on GST/VAT treatment, which countries are considering adopting.

The New Zealand Government has now released its own discussion document titled ‘GST: Cross-border services, intangibles and goods’, which broadly proposes to align New Zealand with the general direction of reforms undertaken by a number of countries.

The key suggestions include:

  • Introducing a new ‘place of supply’ rule so that services and intangibles supplied remotely by an offshore supplier to New Zealand-resident consumers will be treated as performed in New Zealand and therefore subject to GST.
  • The new rules to apply to a wide range of ‘services’, which capture both digital and traditional services.
  • A requirement for offshore suppliers to register and return GST when they supply services and intangibles to New Zealanders if their services exceed a given threshold in a 12 month period.
  • In situations where offshore suppliers do not directly supply services to their customers, and instead use electronic market places to market and sell their services or intangibles, the electronic marketplace may be required to register for GST instead of the principal offshore provider.

While not confirmed in the discussion document, the expectation is that the proposed changes will not require offshore providers to return GST when they make supplies to New Zealand businesses (who would normally be able to claim the GST back). The new rules would focus on taxing business-to-consumer supplies.

At present, GST not collected on low-value goods imported into New Zealand is also an issue. The Government intends to align, where possible, the collection of GST on imported goods with the changes relating to cross-border services and intangibles. The New Zealand Customs Service is looking at options for simplifying the collection mechanism and reducing the threshold before GST is charged on imported goods (currently $400), while balancing the cost of collecting that GST.

As e-commerce continues to grow, the volume of services and imported goods on which GST is not collected is becoming increasingly significant. It has passed the tipping point where the Government is now moving to capture that lost tax revenue.

Businesses should also be mindful of similar changes being implemented in other countries that may result in GST/VAT requiring to be paid.

Published Summer 2015

Serious about your success?