Should social media be used as a tax compliance tool?
By Mbugua Ng’ang’a
Should Kenya Revenue Authority use social media posts as a tool to gauge who is defaulting on tax? This is a question that has engaged Kenyans after the taxman recently said he would use social media postings as a lifestyle audit tool to assess who is paying or not paying taxes.
This debate has two sides to it. The positive side is that for once, KRA has managed to get Kenyans to discuss tax issues informally, thus raising awareness about importance of paying taxes as a civic duty. Of course, it has also given Kenyans time to take a step back and critically think about what they post on social media and what this says about their financial status. It is probable that until KRA signaled its intention, Kenyans had no idea that what they were posting on platforms like Facebook and Instagram said something about their tax obligations. For many, it was just a way of keeping fans and friends informed, entertained and engaged.
Now, however, social media posts have emerged as possible data mining avenue that KRA is leveraging to catch tax cheats. And this is where it becomes complicated. On the one hand, Kenyans are guaranteed freedom of expression through the Constitution as well as international instruments such as Article 19 of the UN Human Rights Convention. However, KRA is now saying that one’s freedom of expression can be used to incriminate him or her for tax offences.
On the one hand, this could make Kenyans more circumspect in what they post online. However, it will mean the savvy ones will post images showing they are not doing well to throw KRA off their backs.
The other question this raises, as tax expert Philip Muema noted in letter posted on Twitter, is that government is using social media as a surveillance tool. Whereas this says government and its agencies are monitoring what is going on in cyberspace, it also tells users that Big Brother is watching and, therefore, they cannot be as free with what they post as they would want. Basically, KRA – and by extension government – are telling social media users “ukicheza kama wewe tutakufinya” (if you are honest in your postings, we will come for you).
What KRA is doing is no different from what surveillance capitalists have been doing for the last 19 years that companies like Google have been in operation. In his book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff says “surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and power… Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us”. Meaning that whereas government agencies and big businesses have cameras to monitor our digital footprints, we, the users of such platforms have no idea what they are doing with that information.
This raises yet another important question that Muema also alluded to. Does such surveillance by government limit a citizen’s right to privacy? Can you for instance, pose in front of a fancy house without getting a call from KRA asking whether you have paid stamp duty for it? And would such a post give KRA a correct picture of what a person is worth and what tax is due?
These are difficult questions considering that in Kenya, there are no laws, rules or policies that stipulate what government agencies can or cannot do with the information that individuals share online. Of course, there are some limits, especially when posts pose a threat to public safety or involve abuse of human rights, in which case criminal liability kicks in. But how can KRA know what users owe in taxes if they post a photo of a whiskey or beer bottle as some Kenyans have been doing?
Whereas this are questions that will keep Kenyans talking, posting and creating memes, the practical benefit of such engagement is that already there has been a notable increase in the number of taxpayers reaching out to KRA to find out if they are compliant. Which means that despite noises on social media platforms, taxpayers are actually taking steps to be compliant, which is to be commended.
— The writer is a partner and the Head of Content at House of Romford —[email protected]