Tax lists bared for public review

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Norway has once again become probably the only country in the world to publicly disclose its tax lists showing what every single taxpayer has contributed to the common good. The lists reveal reported income, net worth and taxes paid, but remain controversial.

“We’re not aware of any other country publishing its tax lists on the Internet in the same way as we do here in Norway,” Anders Lande of the Finance Ministry told Aftenposten.no Wednesday morning. Some of the other Nordic countries make personal tax information publicly available, but don’t mass distribute it, or only make it available for limited periods.

In Norway, however, there’s a long tradition of public tax rolls and the practice of making tax information available took on a whole new meaning with the age of the Internet. Now, instead of physically making a trip to the tax office or City Hall to scroll through reams of paper, Norwegians can simply click into the tax lists (external link, in Norwegian) from the privacy of their own computers, type in their targets’ first name, last name, place of residence and estimated age, and snoop all they want. Websites offering the link typically enjoy their heaviest traffic of the year when the link is activated.

Dated figures
Tax authorities published their files on the Internet early Wednesday after finally finishing up the processing of last year’s tax returns. That means the figures are already 10 months old, since they’re based on taxpayers’ financial status as of December 31, 2009, but they remain wildly popular among curious Norwegians eager to see what their friends, relatives or colleagues earned and paid in tax last year.

The relatively dated nature of the financial information also raises questions over the sorts of media reports already being blasted Wednesday morning, for example that “the finance crisis is over” for Norway’s wealthiest persons. They may have weathered the storm last year, but that’s no guarantee they still are. And those listed as having the highest income, paying the most taxes or having the largest fortune may also be incorrect 10 months later.

Controversy continues to rage over the Internet access to Norwegians’ individual tax and financial information. Organizations representing taxpayers don’t like the mass disclosure, calling it an invasion of privacy and even dangerous when the information falls into the wrong hands. There were numerous reports last year of robberies at the homes of taxpayers who ranked high in terms of income or net worth, and some children were bullied at school over the levels of their parents’ income.

‘National heritage’
State officials seem intent on continuing the disclosure, though, calling it “a central premise” in community debate and contending that mass media distribution strengthens “critical debate” on tax issues.

“It’s part of the national heritage,” says Torgeir Micaelsen of the Labour Party, who leads the finance committee in Parliament. “Norwegians have strong feelings of fairness, that everyone must contribute.” Releasing their tax information shows exactly how much (or how little) they actually do.

As one taxpayer representative told Aftenposten.no, “if your neighbour has a fine house and a nice car, but is listed with zero income or net worth, the idea is that they can tip the tax authorities.” Some studies show, however, that the main reason most people search through the tax files is simply to satisfy their own curiosity.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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