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Tax Reform and the App Economy: The Example of Colombia

By / 12.6.2016

We in the US have been understandably obsessed with the outcome of the presidential election. But the rest of the world keeps moving forward. For example, last week Colombia ratified a historic peace treaty between the government and the rebel movement. PPI was privileged to be in Bogota just this October, where we held a widely publicized App Economy event, describing how Colombia’s App Economy has generated over 80,000 jobs.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos should be congratulated for his success. At the same time, he has introduced an important tax reform measure that simplifies the corporate tax system, while raising new funds. Not surprisingly, the tax reform measure is controversial. For example, franchises of the Subway sandwich chain are complaining that higher taxes will drive them out of business.

More consequentially, the Santos tax reform takes direct aim at Colombia’s digital sector and App Economy in particular. It would raise the VAT on devices (phones, tablets and computers) from 16 to 19% – only the least expensive tablets and computers would be exempt from the VAT. The tax reform would raise VAT on mobile data services from 16 to 19% and add an additional 4% consumption tax (total of 23%). Finally, the tax reform would charge VAT on all digital content and services provided by suppliers based overseas.

These tax measures could potentially restrict continued growth of Colombia’s App Economy, which depends on affordable devices and mobile broadband, and access to apps from all over the world. Moreover, this could hamper competitiveness in the rest of the economy, since the App Economy is far more than just entertainment and game apps. In fact, apps are developed and used by major multinationals, banks, media companies, retailers, and governments.

The future importance of the App Economy goes even further. We quote from our October 2016 paper “Tracking Colombia’s App Economy:”

One of the biggest changes coming is the Internet of Things, which is the use of the Internet to help control physical devices and our physical environment. Farmers will increasingly use apps to aid their agricultural production, nurses and doctors will use apps to manage patient care, and manufacturers will use apps to control their factories.

Globally, digitally-successful countries such as Vietnam and China apply relatively lower VAT rates to mobile data and services to boost uptake (See this recent report on digital inclusion and mobile sector taxation).

Finally, as we note in our October 2016 paper:

If policymakers are serious about fostering a dynamic startup ecosystem and App Economy, then continuing with the types of policies that facilitate App Economy growth will allow Colombia to participate in the global mobile revolution as a producer rather than a consumer. Putting too many costly restrictions on Colombia’s App Economy could divert the growth elsewhere. (emphasis added)