New restrictions limit tax snooping

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Norwegian tax authorities publicly released the country’ so-called “tax lists” on Friday, revealing what every single taxpayer in the country reported as their taxable income, net worth and how much tax they paid last year. Some have equated the practice to “having your pay slip hung up in the company canteen,” but this year the authorities introduced restrictions that clearly  have made the vast majority of Norwegians more reluctant to snoop through the lists.

As of 9am Friday, officials at the state tax office Skattedirektoratet could report that they’d registered 80,177 electronic searches of the tax lists. At the same time last year, the number was 726,661. The huge decline is linked to new restrictions that require those searching the tax lists to register themselves for access. And those whose tax information has been accessed can find out who checked up on them.

Anonymous searches stopped
That has made Norwegians less eager to check on how much their friends, foes, boss or co-workers reported in taxable income last year, simply because such snooping can no longer be done anonymously.

The bottom lines of tax returns are considered public information in Norway and have long been open for public inspection. Tax authorities claim the unusual openness of personal tax information in Norway has aided their efforts to crack down on tax cheats. The theory is that Norwegians who believe acquaintances have reported income or taxes paid that are unusually low will pass on their suspicions to the authorities. As a result, the authorities claim the state has collected hundreds of millions of more tax revenue over the years.

In the past, the tax lists were laid out in huge books at City Hall, where people would line up to go through them. Their snooping was anonymous. The anonymous tax snooping all but went wild when tax lists were released online. Norwegians seemed to make a hobby out of scrolling through them to satisfy their curiosity about the income and tax status of people they know. Media outlets were also allowed to directly link to the tax lists, and their website traffic soared.

Too much openness
There was a downside, though, with children being bullied in school because their parents were seen as earning too little and police claiming that organized thievery rings would use the tax lists to select homes for burglary. Politicians began to respond, and initially refused to allow media to link to the lists any longer.

The latest move by the authorities, made on orders from the Parliament, is aimed at ending the tax-snooping free-for-all. “Many feel that having such personal financial information openly available is uncomfortable, and an assault on their right to privacy,” Finance Minister Siv Jensen said when the restrictions were put out to hearing last winter. Ove Skåra at the Norwegian Data Protection Authority (Datatilsynet) agrees.

“Much of the use of open tax lists hasn’t been in line with the state’s actual goal,” Skåra told NRK, noting how many Norwegians have searched the lists most out of curiosity and not to help control the tax system. The new restrictions also have set age limits, with no one under age 16 allowed access to the lists. Nor is it possible to seek out the tax information of more than 500 persons per month. Among the goals is to prevent commercial entities from selling the personal tax information.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund