The shitty #vatmoss laws mirror our shitty piracy laws

If you haven’t encountered it already #VATMOSS refers to a bloody awful new law passed by the European Union on the taxation via VAT of digital goods – which includes things like ebooks and online courses. The aim of the law is to stop Amazon and other big digital retailers from running all their VAT through Luxembourg and hence dodging taxes. The outcome – intended or otherwise – is that every single person or business selling any digital product to anyone in the EU has to register for VAT. A massive and expensive admin burden, so expensive it will stop most of those people trading.

Crappy huh? It’s certainly in the running for shittiest law ever written. There’s a petition to stop it here, you should go and sign it.

“All of us, us citizens of this world, need to get much better at seeing the big picture of laws made to govern digital technology.”

There is also a lesson to be taken from #VATMOSS, one we all need to start learning. In reality, unless tax authorities aggressively enforce these new laws, most people will ignore them. In this regard, #vatmoss is very similar to the current laws on digital file sharing, commonly called piracy. Potentially huge fines and prison sentences can be used against people who pirate digital goods, but because so many people do just that, in practice the laws are not enforced, except in largely futile “show cases” that inflict horrific damage on a few individuals, in defence of laws that no sane government would every pass, let alone enforce.

Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free by Cory Doctorow


#VATMOSS and our piracy laws both exist for the same reason. The attempt to treat digital goods in the same way we treat physical goods. Everyone knows that digital goods AREN’T the same as physical goods, so why are our governments proceeding as though they are. In both cases it’s because of vested interests, who want to hold back progress to defend the status quo that happens to benefit them (and their bank balance).

Our piracy laws have been heavily lobbied for by media corporations, including major publishers. Those businesses have an established business model, and they want digital goods to fit in to it. Creators tend to support these laws. Most writers I know are against piracy, and consider it theft. There are notable exceptions of course. I’m quite outspoken in favour of file sharing. Not because I want to hurt the careers of writers, but because I want to see laws that are in line with reality. And the reality is digital music, films and books etc can and will always be shared and pirated by people. We need laws that work WITH those facts, not laws that IGNORE facts in favour of vested interests.

The facts are that millions of people now make small, or occasionally large, sums of money selling digital goods online. Making a law to make all of those people sign up for VAT in a dozens of countries is patently ridiculous. And yet, here we are. Because once again, our law makers are treating digital goods like physical goods. In the case of #VATMOSS this seems to be primarily a matter of ignorance, and governments who simply don’t understand that millions of their citizens are exercising their entrepreneurial talents and generating wealth by making and selling digital products. But I would not be surprised if any number of vested interests have nudged the #VATMOSS laws in their current absurd direction.

All of us, us citizens of this world, need to get much better at seeing the big picture of laws made to govern digital technology. I’ve offended no small number of my fellow writers by telling them bluntly I think they are selfish to support existing piracy laws. Yes, I understand the pain of people copying your books without paying. But that’s simply the world we live in now, and supporting laws that aren’t in line with that reality are not a solution. And in the mid to long term, it leads to laws like #VATMOSS, that most writers will be against. We all need to start prioritising the common good in digital law making, otherwise the digital commons will quickly be divided between more powerful vested interests.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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