Tax list snoops face new restrictions
February 1, 2011
Norway’s extraordinary openness with its public tax lists looks set to close up a bit, under new rules proposed by the Finance Ministry this week. Information on what all Norwegians earned and paid in taxes will still be available, but not for unrestricted snooping on commercial websites.
The Norwegian government has for decades bared its public lists every October, when the year’s tax returns have been completed. Until the age of the Internet, curious citizens could troop down to the tax office or even City Hall, and flip through printouts of tax lists showing what every individual in Norway earned, paid in taxes and, not least, listed as their personal net worth for tax purposes.
Release of the tax lists always has led to media coverage about who paid the most taxes in Norway, who earned the most and who has the largest personal fortunes. The tax information was broken down by communities, so local folks from Kirkenes in the far north to Kristiansand in the south could see how their fellow citizens ranked in their home towns.
The age of the Internet, however, led to electronic publication of the tax information that commercial media’s websites loved because of the huge traffic it generated. Complaints soon arose, however, that the electronic publication was simply too public, prompting massive surfing and information-gathering that ultimately was blamed for bullying in the schools (over how much or how little children’s parents earned) and even a rash of home burglaries (when police suspected the burglars chose homes of persons reporting large incomes or fortunes).
“Information on income and taxes is a central premise in our society and it’s therefore important that the tax lists are public,” said Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen. “The principle of openness, however, must not go so far that it can come at the expense of personal security, or an unfortunate commercialization.”
Tightening the rules
Johnsen therefore wants to tighten publication rules, to reduce the chances of abuse. The lists will still be public, but will only be released to media outlets that agree to not to publish them in their entirety and as searchable on their websites. The lists will, however, be searchable for internal editorial use, “securing the media the ability to use them for critical journalism and stories on the tax system,” Johnsen said.
The ministry’s proposal also calls for the tax lists to still be available, and searchable, on the tax authorities’ own website all year.
Some newspaper editors were skeptical, but the proposal bears some resemblance to how media outlets have handled their access to WikiLeaks documents, which haven’t been opened up and made searchable to the public at large. Opposition politicians don’t think the government has gone far enough in restricting access to the tax lists.
“The proposal leaves a lot of questions unanswered,” Gunnar Gundersen of the Conservative Party told news bureau NTB. He doubts it will hinder commercialization or prevent criminals from gaining access to the information.