Human Rights Implications of Internet Access Taxation
Balancing Between Revenue Mobilization and Digital Rights
The fundamental purpose of any tax system is to raise the resources necessary for governments to equitably improve human well-being and implement their international obligation to promote, protect, and fulfill human rights. However, faced with limited sources of non-tax revenues, the prospect of increasing revenues by levying taxes on the growing internet access seems like a reasonable solution for developing countries such as Kenya, whose government relies heavily on tax revenue as its main source of domestic revenue. This approach is informed by the Service Tax Revenue Maximization model of broadband taxation, which perceives Internet services as an attractive source of tax revenues, by combining high value-added tax, high sector-specific taxes and/or a fixed levy
However, levying taxes on internet access is impacting negatively on human rights given that the internet serves as an enabler of human rights such as the right to free expression and states have a responsibility to ensure citizens’ access to the Internet is guaranteed by ensuring that access policies are in line with the requirements of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this regard, civil society organizations that have been at the forefront of efforts to situate tax in a human rights context have argued that internet consumption taxes have profound negative effects on the realization of human rights.
Taxation of Internet access is also in conflict with Kenya’s National Broadband Strategy which seeks to reduce the internet connectivity gap by extending affordable high-speed internet access to all parts of the country. It also goes against the Universalization of Service model of ICT service taxation, which proposes the reduction of Internet taxes as much as possible in order to stimulate its adoption Accordingly, the current Internet consumption taxes serve as barriers to access and are therefore likely to deepen digital inequality between the rich and the poor as the ability of individuals and households to pay the taxes depends largely on their sociodemographic status.
However, in light of the current fiscal challenges, the Kenyan government may not be able to afford to give up the much-needed revenues from VAT, excise taxes and other fees necessary to pay for essential public services, even if only for a few years, while internet demand (and the tax base) grows/picks up. This is due to the fact that revenue from direct taxes is still insufficient to meet the country’s needs and non-tax revenue is still very low. In order to achieve a win-win situation, there’s a need for urgent dialogue amongst various stakeholders so as to work towards achieving a trade-off between the conflicting policy objectives of raising government revenue to meet development obligations and increasing internet access in order to realize human rights that are in variance with each other.
KICTAnet is, therefore, undertaking a research project to contribute to the emerging dialogue between tax, ICT, and human rights stakeholders in Kenya, and inform the next policy actions. This research will go through a validation engagement with industry stakeholders and relevant policymakers.
Support: This project is supported by GNI and Internews through a joint fellowship program.
Contact: To find more about this project, please email infoATkictanet.or.ke, lizoremboATkictanet.or.ke, firstname.lastname@example.org