Technological advancement and shifting consumer patterns have contributed to the increasing trend of businesses or exchange done virtually. The current form of Inland Revenue Ordinance (Cap. 112) (the “IRO”), however, contain no specific provisions to deal with the taxation of e-commerce and / or digital assets businesses. To cope with such change of circumstances and to fill the gap, the Inland Revenue Department (the “IRD”) issued the Departmental Interpretation and Practice Notes 39 in July 2001 to provide clarity on its taxation of e-commerce businesses. Such Departmental Interpretation and Practice Notes was recently revised and issued by the IRD in late March 2020 (the “DIPN 39 (Revised)”). In gist, it adopts the general approach (as provided for under section 14 of the IRO and at common law) in determining whether a person is chargeable to Hong Kong Profits Tax for those businesses. The sharp difference between e-commerce businesses and traditional trading and manufacturing businesses prompted the IRD to revisit the relevant tax position and issue additional guidelines thereon. The article aims to discuss the notable changes under the DIPN 39 (Revised).
1. What does that mean by carrying on an e-commerce business in Hong Kong?
Previously, the IRD was of the view that the mere presence of a server in Hong Kong (even if the server was capable of concluding contracts, processing payments or delivering digital goods without the involvement of human activities) would not generally be considered as carrying on a business in Hong Kong. The IRD would adopt a totality of fact approach to consider a basket of factors (including but not limited to where the goods are stored, where services were rendered, where contracts were made and where payments were made, etc.) in concluding whether or not a person was carrying on an e-commerce business in Hong Kong.
Further, given that the server did not fall within the scope of “a branch, management or other place of business”, the mere presence of a server in Hong Kong did not constitute a permanent establishment (the “PE”) for non-resident persons and hence, those non-resident persons would not be considered as carrying on an e-commerce business in Hong Kong solely by that reason. Such position taken by the IRD was contrary to the view of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the “OECD”).
The IRD has now adopted a substantially different position as stated in the DIPN 39 (Revised). The DIPN 39 (Revised) clearly provides that if the core operations and support activities atypically seen in an e-commerce model (see paragraph 7 of the DIPN 39 (Revised)) are performed in Hong Kong, the person concerned will be considered as carrying on an e-commerce business in Hong Kong.
The IRD’s position on “server” has also been aligned with that of the OECD. The IRD’s current view is that the server may constitute a fixed place of business (and hence a PE) if an essential and significant part of the e-commerce business (as distinguished from preparatory or auxiliary activities) is conducted via the server. This literally means that a non-resident person, who owns or rents a server in Hong Kong which is capable of concluding contracts, processing payments or delivering digital goods in Hong Kong even without the involvement of human activities in Hong Kong, might be considered as having a PE in Hong Kong for Profits Tax purposes. While the IRD clarifies that that the sub-contracting to a HK service provider which so happens hosts the non-resident’s website via a server located in HK would not constitute an establishment of PE by that non-resident per se (as long as the server is not at the disposal of the non-resident), it is noteworthy that a non-resident without a PE in HK might still be subject to the Hong Kong Profits Tax if it is regarded as carrying on a business in Hong Kong. All relevant facts and circumstances would be examined before any conclusion could be made.
2. Is the profit of the e-commerce sourced in Hong Kong?
Instead of merely looking at the location of the server, the IRD makes it clear that the correct approach in determining the source of profits of an e-commerce business should be identifying the core operations of the e-commerce business generating the profits and determining where those core operations take place. In that respect, the IRD has provide 2 illustrations in the DIPN 39 (Revised):-
|Illustration 1:||If a person, resident in Hong Kong, performs all the core operations and support activities of an e-commerce business in Hong Kong apart from operating a server, intelligent or otherwise, which is at the person’s disposal and located outside Hong Kong for e-commerce purposes, the profits from the person’s e-commerce transactions will be fully charged to profits tax as profits derived from Hong Kong.|
|Illustration 2:||If a person, resident in a territory which has concluded a double tax agreement with Hong Kong, performs most of the operations and support activities of an e-commerce business outside Hong Kong apart from operating merely a server with essential and significant activities which is at the person’s disposal and located in Hong Kong (i.e. the server constitutes a permanent establishment in Hong Kong), profits attributable to the server permanent establishment having regard to the functions the server performs in Hong Kong will be charged to profits tax in accordance with the general principles in section 14.|
The logical conclusions to be drawn from the illustrations are that (1) if all the core operations and support activities of an e-commerce business are performed in Hong Kong, the profits generated therefrom will be subject to Profits Tax, irrespectively of the residency of the person, the location of the server and whether or not the server is at the disposal of the person; and (2) a server in Hong Kong at the disposal of a non-resident person might constitute a PE of that non-resident person, giving rise to chargeable profits attributable to that server “activities” in Hong Kong.
3. Our Observations
The IRD’s initiative to revise the rules on the taxation of e-commerce business to be aligned with international tax rules and standards is certainly welcome. The changes as contained in the DIPN 39 (revised) do provide more clarity on how the IRD is going to assess e-commerce businesses.
Having said that, from a practical point of view, given the fast pace in the development of e-commerce businesses (e.g. crowdfunding, dashboard solutions, drop shipping, online marketplace or flexible payment solutions) and their ever-changing models, it is believed that more e-commerce businesses (whether Hong Kong resident entities or non-Hong Kong resident entities) will be subject to the review by the IRD in terms of chargeability or offshore claims for the following reasons:-
(a) it is of utmost difficulty in determining (1) whether the business activities carried out by a person engaged in an e-commerce represent core operations and support activities of a business or merely constitute preparatory activities; and (2) whether or not the activities conducted via a sever represents an essential and significant activities of the relevant e-commerce business, as all of these are judgmental and might vary between different e-commerce businesses; and
(b) it is never easy to fully comprehend an innovative e-commerce business or its model (e.g. when blockchain business first emerged) and it seems to us that the IRD and the assessors are still analyzing such business and its model in a conventional way.
In light of the changes under DIPN 39 (Revised) which is likely to be further revised by the end of 2020 upon the finalization of the report on digitalization by the OECD, clients should review their e-commerce businesses and make changes to the models to reduce any adverse tax implication or bearing thereof or better prepare themselves for the IRD’s enquiries on the e-commerce business. If you have any questions on the above, please contact one of the members of our Tax Advisory Team.
Disclaimer: This article is for reference only. Nothing herein shall be construed as Hong Kong legal advice or any legal advice for that matter to any person. Oldham, Li & Nie shall not be held liable for any loss and/or damage incurred by any person acting as a result of the materials contained in this article.
 Section 14 of the IRO provides that a charge to Profits Tax will arise when the following three conditions are satisfied: (a) the person must carry on a trade, profession or business in Hong Kong; (b) the profits to be charged must be from such trade, professional or business carried on by the person in Hong Kong; and (c) the profits must be “profits arising in or derived from” Hong Kong.