Taxing the Intangibles – coming soon to a screen near you!

No sooner had Netflix launched in Australia than Treasurer Joe Hockey announced the imposition of GST on “intangibles” purchased from overseas vendors. The Treasurer has also indicated that the GST-free threshold for on-line imports will be lowered from the current $1,000. Dubbed the “Netflix tax”, Australian consumers should now expect to pay more for their digital content such as video, music, software and e-books, even though on most evidence, we are already charged more for comparable products than in other markets.

Geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers…

Backdrop

We all know why the Treasurer has proposed this scheme: the Government has to make up for declining tax receipts, and appease the States who are squabbling over the allocation of GST revenue between them. Plus the current Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft (who divert locally sourced income to offshore entities to reduce their income tax liability in Australia) is driving the public and political agenda on global tax minimization schemes (which are nothing new, of course).*

But it’s not as simple as slapping an extra 10% on the price of a movie download, even though GST is a relatively easy and cost-effective way of generating tax revenue. For one thing, there is little consistency in how vendors currently sell their digital products in Australia. Secondly, geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers, leading to the sort of content piracy infringement that will now make local ISP’s and their subscribers more vulnerable to legal action, following the recent “Dallas Buyers Club” court ruling. Thirdly, local retailers who have long campaigned to have the GST-free threshold removed or lowered fail to acknowledge why customers prefer to shop from overseas vendors.

Goods & Services Tax

GST (similar to VAT in Europe) is a simple consumption tax. It applies to the sale or supply of most items (except things like fresh food and health services) at a flat rate of 10%.

Even better, the Government and the tax authorities rely on businesses to collect, report and remit GST receipts, making it relatively cheap to administer (when compared to other taxes) via the Business Activity Statement process managed by the Australian Taxation Office.

The GST is a key topic of the current review of the tax system – likely to result in a higher rate (or different rates), and/or broader application to items not currently included.

Vendor Inconsistency

In principle, I don’t have a problem in paying GST on digital items I buy from overseas vendors – but there is so much inconsistency that there is a risk of consumers having to pay two lots of sales tax.

For example, every iTunes receipt issued by Apple Pty Ltd (an Australian entity) states that the sale amount already includes GST – in which case, Apple should be remitting that component to the ATO, and no need for a price increase.

However, Adobe chooses to invoice me from Ireland, and as such no GST (or VAT) is applied, but I am charged forex fees, even though the invoice amount is expressed in Australian dollars, because my bank treats this as a foreign transaction.

Meanwhile, although some UK vendors I buy from direct do not apply GST/VAT on my orders (Amazon UK included), others do – meaning I risk having to pay both the GST and VAT. As a further sign of vendor inconsistency, Amazon’s US store does not appear to deduct US sales tax for foreign customers; neither the UK or US Amazon stores sell music downloads to Australian customers; and Amazon’s Australian store only sells e-books and apps.

Geo-blocking

The decision in the “Dallas Buyers Club” IP infringement case brought by Voltage Films, has again drawn attention to Australia’s poor reputation for copyright piracy as evidenced by the number and frequency of illegal downloads.

Some journalists have commented that distributors often delay the local release of imported content (for various reasons) although this was not seen as a justification for piracy (and quite rightly so).

While foreign films are frequently released later in Australia, it’s interesting that TV (even free to air channels) has woken up to this, and now broadcasters rush to fast-track imported shows to keep audiences happy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Productivity Commission, as part of its competition policy review of IP laws, has suggested that if local rights holders and distributors choose not to exercise their commercial rights, under a “use it or lose it” model, third-party distributors would be able to step in. This also has the potential to undermine the archaic industry practice of geo-blocking, whereby sales of music, film and TV content (physical and digital) are restricted by territory.

Local retailers and distributors need to lift their game

Does the absence of GST really encourage consumers to buy from offshore retailers? I would beg to differ.

Local rights holders often do not bother to make content and products available in Australia. And local retailers won’t usually stock products if they are not readily available from wholesalers or distributors.

I recently had to contact an overseas artist, the UK record label and its Australian distributor several times to make their music available online in Australia. The local distributor had not bothered to release the content, even though they had the rights, but geo-blocking prevented me from accessing it legally from overseas suppliers.

It’s the combination of inadequate local distribution, non-availability, higher prices and lacklustre service that encourages Australian consumers to buy from overseas, even if that means circumventing geo-blocking. In many cases, I doubt the addition of GST will be a serious deterrent to online overseas shopping.

In my own case, I once found that the local branches of a global retail brand chose not to stock the item I wanted, and their US parent geo-blocked me from ordering on-line. So I resorted to buying in the “grey” or parallel imports market, from an offshore vendor willing to ship direct to Australia. It was still cheaper, even after shipping costs, and even if GST had been added (I probably paid US sales tax on the transaction anyway), than if I had bought from a local retailer (assuming they bothered to stock the item).

Hopefully, this debate on GST and the Productivity Commission’s review of competition policy will finally give local retailers an incentive to do a better job of serving their customers.

* The debate on corporate tax minimization might want to look at where “value” is created, and where the revenue is booked, that gives rise to a tax on the resulting profits. For me, the retail value of intangibles such as digital products is created when someone pays to download them, at the point of sale – i.e., in the consumer’s geographic location.  Although the vendor may argue that the IP is owned by an offshore entity to whom they must pay royalties, the individual download itself does not have any standalone value, until it is accessed by the consumer. Even a high rate of royalty repatriation could not be more than the retail price, so logic might suggest that local profits should be taxed accordingly.

Next week: What can we learn from the music industry?

Personal vs Public: Rethinking Privacy

An incident I recently witnessed in my neighbourhood has caused to me to rethink how we should be defining “privacy”. Data protection is one thing, but when our privacy can be compromised via the direct connection between the digital and analog worlds, all the cyber security in the world doesn’t protect us against unwanted nuisance, intrusion or even invasion of our personal space.

Pressefotografen mit KamerasScenario

As I was walking along the street, I saw another pedestrian stop outside a house, and from the pavement, use her smart phone to take a photograph through the open bedroom window. Regardless of who was inside, and irrespective of what they were doing (assuming nothing illegal was occurring), I would consider this to be an invasion of privacy.

For example, it would be very easy to share the picture via social media, along with date and location data. From there, it could be possible to search land registries and other public records to ascertain the identity of the owners and/or occupants. And with a little more effort, you might have enough information to stalk or even cyber-bully them.

Privacy Law

Photographing people on private property (e.g., in their home) from public property (e.g., on the street outside) is not an offence, although photographers must not cause a nuisance nor interfere with the occupants’ right of quiet enjoyment. Our current privacy laws largely exclude this breach of privacy (unless it relates to disclosure of personal data by a regulated entity). Even rules about the use of drones are driven by safety rather than privacy concerns.

Since the late 1990’s, and the advent of spam and internet hacking, there have been court decisions that update the law of trespass to include what could be defined as “digital trespass”, although some judges have since tried to limit such actions to instances where actual harm or damage has been inflicted on the plaintiff. (Interestingly, in Australia, an act of trespass does not have to be “intentional”, merely “negligent”.)

Apart from economic and financial loss that can arise from internet fraud and identity theft, invasion of privacy via public disclosure of personal data could lead to personal embarrassment, damage to reputation or even ostracism. (In legal terms emotional stress falls within “pain and suffering”).

Data Protection Law

The Australian Privacy Principles contained within the 1988 Privacy Act apply to government agencies, private companies with annual turnover of $3m or more, and any organisations trading in personal data, dealing with credit information or providing health services. There are specific provisions relating to the use and misuse of government-derived identifiers such as medical records and tax file numbers.

The main purpose of the privacy legislation is to protect “sensitive” information, and to prevent such data being used unlawfully to identify specific individuals. At a minimum, this means keeping personal data such as dates of birth, financial records or hospital files in a secure format.

Some Practical Definitions

The following are not legal definitions, but hopefully offer a practical framework to understand how we might categorise such data, and manage our obligations towards it:

“Confidential”

Secret information that must not be disclosed to anyone unless there is a legal obligation or permission to do so. (There are also specific issues and exceptions relating to “classified information”, public interest matters, whistleblower protection and Freedom of Information requests.)

“Private”

Information which is not for public or general consumption, although the data itself may not be “confidential”. May still be subject to legal protection or rights, such as the right of adopted children to discover the identity of their birth parents, or the right of someone not to be identified as a lottery winner.

“Personal”

Data that relates to, or can specifically identify a particular individual. An increasing issue for Big Data, because data that otherwise resides in separate locations can now be re-connected using triangulation techniques – scrape enough websites and drill down into enough databases, and you could probably find my shoe size.

“Public”

Anything that has been published, or easily discoverable through open search or public database retrieval (but, for example, does not include my past transactions on eBay unless I have chosen to disclose them to other users). My date of birth may be a matter of record, but unless you have authorised access to the relevant database or registry, you won’t be able to discover it and you certainly shouldn’t disclose it without my permission.

Copyright Law

One further dimension to the debate is copyright law – the ownership and related rights associated with any creative works, including photographs. All original content is copyright (except those works deemed to be in the “public domain”), and nearly all copyright vests with the person who created the work (unless they have legally assigned their copyright, or the material was created in the course of their employment).

In the scenario described above, the photographer would hold copyright in the picture they took. However, if the photograph included the image of an artwork or even a framed letter hanging on the wall, they could not reproduce the photograph without the permission of the person who owned the copyright in those original works. In some (limited) situations, a photograph of a building may be subject to the architect’s copyright in the design.

Curiosity is not enough justification to share

My personal view on all this is that unless there is a compelling reason to make something public, protecting our personal privacy takes precedent over the need to post, share or upload pictures of other people in their private residence, especially any images taken without the occupants’ knowledge or permission.

Just to clarify, I’m not referring to surveillance and monitoring by the security services and law enforcement agencies, for which there are understandable motives (and appropriate safeguards).

I’m saying that if we showed a little more respect for each others’ personal space and privacy (particularly within our homes, not just in cyberspace) then we might show a little more consideration to our neighbours and fellow citizens.

Next week: It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

“Why? Because we’ve always done it this way…”

A couple of blogs ago, one of my regular correspondents kindly laid down a challenge. He suggested that part of the answer to the problem I was writing about (i.e., how to manage data overload) could be found within Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”.

Why?I’m quite familiar with Sinek’s investigation of “Why?”, but I wasn’t sure it was applicable in the context of my topic. Don’t get me wrong – the “Golden Circle” is a great tool for getting leadership teams to explore and articulate their purpose, and it can help individual business owners to re-connect with the reasons they do what they do.

It can even facilitate new product and service development.

But, I believe it’s harder to apply at an operational or processing level, where the sorts of decisions I was referring to in my blog are typically being made: what tools to use, what systems to adopt, what software to deploy etc.

There are several reasons why organisations do things the way they do them. When undertaking a business process review, I frequently ask the question, “Why are you doing this?”

Here are some typical responses I’ve received (and my conclusions in parentheses):

  • “Because we have to” (compliance)
  • “Because we’ve been told to” (command and control)
  • “Because we’ve always done it like this” (inertia)
  • “Because everyone else is doing it” (cheap/easy/popular)
  • “Because our consultants recommended it” (cop-out)

In one experience, I had to implement a process change within a publishing team, comprising experts (writers) and technicians (editors). The problem was, that even though the content was published on-line, most of the production processes were done on hard copy, before the final versions were uploaded via a content management system. The inefficiencies in the process were compounded by a near-adversarial relationship between writers and editors, at times bordering on a war of attrition.

When I asked the team why they worked this way, their responses were mainly along the lines of “command and control” and “inertia”. Behaviours were reinforced by some self-imposed demarcation.

The writers felt it was their role as experts to demonstrate everything they knew about the topic (without necessarily saying what they actually thought); while the editors felt they were required to work within a rigid house style (to the point of pedantry), maintain writing quality (at the expense of timeliness), and to maintain content structure and format (over context and insight).

  • Both sides felt they were meeting the organisation’s purpose: to deliver quality information to their customers to help them make informed decisions.
  • Both believed they were following clear operational guidelines, such as production, technical, and compliance.
  • Both were passionate about what they did, and took great pride in their work.

Unfortunately, the procedures which they had each been told to follow were inefficient, at times contradictory, and increasingly out of step with what customers actually wanted.

Based on market feedback clients told us they:

  • favoured timeliness over 100% perfection;
  • preferred insights over data dumps; and
  • really wanted “little and often” in terms of content updates

Thankfully, the voice of the customer prevailed, and the introduction of more timely content management processes resulted in frequent updating (via regular bulletins) backed by the “traditional” in-depth analysis.

When starting a change management project, conducting a process review, or undertaking a root-cause analysis, if asking “Why?” doesn’t get you very far in getting to the bottom of a problem, I find that it can help to pose another question: “What would your customers think about this?” For example, if customers knew how many times a piece of data was handed back and forth before their order/request/enquiry was processed, what impression might that give about an organisation?

For most companies, their sense of purpose is driven by a strong or underlying desire to serve their customers better – it’s as simple as that.

Next week: The 3L’s that kill #data projects

A couple of No-No’s for content marketers

If you are just getting started in content marketing, or if social media is still a bit of a novelty for your organisation, there are a couple of things you should definitely avoid when attempting to use third-party content for your own promotional purposes: don’t misappropriate, and don’t misrepresent.

All marketers will be alert to false, deceptive or misleading advertising. More experienced content developers should also understand legal issues such as plagiarism, copyright infringement, passing-off and libel. However, even seemingly innocent and well-intentioned references made to third-party content may inadvertently border on unconscionable conduct.

Last week, I had the rather disturbing experience of a company attempting to use my blog to promote a service, and in a way that not only implied I was endorsing that service, but also suggested that my blog was somehow the reason why customers should sign up for it.

I found this problematic for three reasons:

First, I had no knowledge of or connection with this particular service, and the promotional message gave the impression I was endorsing it, which was obviously misleading, and it quoted my article out of context. At an extreme level, if I ever wrote a blog about the “10 reasons why I take public transport”, and then a political party co-opted my content to say “10 reasons why you should vote for our transport policy”, that would be misappropriation (of my content) and misrepresentation (of my views).

Second, even though the service referred to was being offered for free, if the company had managed to generate new clients via this particular campaign, there’s no direct benefit to me or my business, but lots of benefit to the company and/or its partners. In this increasingly self-directed, interconnected and collaborative environment, it’s important to make sure we are all “paying it forward” in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. (I have no problem with receiving a referral fee or a direct benefit in kind if my efforts have been instrumental in securing new customers for your business!)

Third, I am fortunate that a number of my blog articles have been re-syndicated via social media and other channels. In writing about third-party products and services, I am very careful not to endorse specific businesses or brands, other than to mention names (and link to relevant sites). Where I am providing criticism, I endeavour to do so under the auspices of “fair comment”. This is important when establishing credibility with an audience: that my content is seen to be authentic, that I demonstrate awareness about the purpose and context of my blog, and that I attribute whenever I am referencing or citing third-party content. (See an earlier blog I wrote on this topic) But, if in doubt, always ask the content owner in advance before linking, referencing, quoting, attributing or re-contextualising their content.

Finally, if I can be of any assistance in relation to your own content marketing, please let me know via this site.