2009: the year the ATO wakes up?

In recent weeks over on Terra Nova, Julian Dibbell has raised the issue again of taxation and virtual worlds. It’s worth a read purely to gain some insight into the complexity of the issue. As Dibbell states, it’s a lot more than the concept of taxing the sale of virtual goods, although that’s likely to be the driving force of any actions by governments.


On the Australian front, back in October 2006 the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported on advice from the Australian Tax Office (ATO), which was:

People trading in virtual worlds should consider very carefully whether they are conducting a business or a hobby

Since then, there’s been no real change in approach from the ATO – I’m not aware of any campaign to enforce taxation on earnings in virtual worlds. One assumption would be that enforcement is so fraught with difficulties that it remains in the ‘too-hard’ basket, and rightly so. Even in the two or so years since the ATO made that comment, there are even more complicating factors, not least of which is the continued growth in virtual world platforms. Imagine trying to audit a virtual world entrepreneur who makes money in Second Life that he /she partly cashes out in US dollars whilst keeping the bulk in-world in Linden Dollars. If they then operate their business on an OpenSim grid with a different virtual currency, you can imagine the compliance nightmares for the entrepreneur, let alone the ability of the ATO to make any sense of the whole operation.

That said, in a real-world environment of shrinking tax revenues and the growing focus by the US Government on the issue, it’s hard to imagine the ATO are going to continue to sit on their hands for another year. A sensible start would be an inquiry into the challenges of virtual taxation, with the opportunity for virtual world users to provide submissions on a way forward. It would be potentially disastrous if a heavy-handed approach eventuated, that impacted on the multitude of small business people operating successfully in worlds like Second Life now.

The hobby/business continuum has always been a grey area – the only sensible approach for those operating business in virtual worlds is to assume they have a business, not a hobby. With that approach, whenever regulation does eventuate the transparency is already established. Increased regulation seems an inevitability – it’s how that regulation is implemented that will need to be watched closely.

What are your thoughts – can you see the ATO getting more active in the area or is the cost of ensuring compliance too great for the potential returns?

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