A critical look at the social media tax

Jun 14, 2018

This tax comes with an intrinsic element of double taxation

By Richard Ssempala

On 14 June 2018, the Minister of Finance will play one of the constitutional roles stipulated in Article 155(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda - he will present the budget for financial year (FY) 2018/19. The budget provides for the estimated revenues and expenditures of the government in a given financial year.

This year's budget (FY 2018/19) is estimated at sh32, 367.49b, of which sh22,258.796b is for appropriation and sh10, 108.633b is for statutory expenditure.

The annual budget for FY 2018/19 exceeds the approved budget for FY 2017/18 (sh29,008.5b) by 11.6%, indicating that government demand is to increase in the economy.

The main contributor to this increase is government consumption rated at 5.8% and investment at 4.1%. This points to a mismatch between investment and consumption in many least developed countries (LDCs). This year's budget is coming a time when Uganda's tax revenue to GDP ratio is low, estimated at 14%, compared to its optimal potential of 20 % of GDP and a set target of 16% in the second National Development plan.

It should be noted that Uganda's budget in nominal terms has been expanding over the last decade. A look at national budgets since the enactment of the Public Finance Management (PFM) Act in 2015 shows that the approved budgets for the last three financial years (FYs) have averaged sh29 trillion.

As a way of increasing tax generation in the country, a number of tax proposals have been made. Interestingly, one of them is the social media tax passed by Parliament on 30 May 2018. By virtue of this tax, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) will collect money from telecom companies which supply data to all mobile phone users with social media.

How is this tax controversial?

The new law will impose a mandatory sh200 (U$0.052) daily levy on every user of the Over the Top (OTT) services eg WhatsApp, Facebook etc. The tax which will be collected by telecom companies on behalf of URA is expected to raise UGX 284 billion in FY 2018/19.

This tax, however, comes with an intrinsic element of double taxation. This could occur when a customer has dual Sim cards, especially where both lines have internet bundles. Another paradox relates to when an individual has no credit on the line yet the line has bundles. Won't this increase non-compliance with the tax requirement, thereby leading to low tax collection? In addition, it might be difficult to distinguish between those using the Over-the-top (OTT) services for research and gossiping since these platforms have been adopted by for example farmers to market their produce as well medical practitioners in health to recommend referrals.

With the emerging innovations in communication technology, this tax is doomed to be amenable to collection only in the short run, especially where one chooses to use Virtual Private Network (VPN), rendering the implementation of this tax cumbersome.

In that regard, government ought to look more at long-term and sustainable sources of tax revenue. There is a need to ensure that all the gaps and leakages in the collection of the tax are plugged.

The issues of giving many tax exemptions and holidays to foreign investors should be reconsidered. Where possible a cost benefit analysis need to be undertaken on such firms that have enjoyed these exemptions to establish their contribution to the economy. Also, more effective efforts should be made to instil the spirit of compliance in the taxpayers by ensuring value for money in all projects undertaken using their taxes. Short of this, a historical paradox - growth without transformation - might continue affecting our country.

Writer is a knowledge management officer - SPEED Project- Makerere University School of Public Health

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