The G20 backed a fundamental rethink of the rules on taxing multinational corporations on Friday, taking aim at loopholes used by companies such as Apple and Google to avoid billions of dollars in taxes.
The group of leading economies released an action plan drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that said the existing system didn't work, especially when it came to taxing companies that trade online.
Large budget deficits and public anger at inter-company structures designed to channel profits into tax havens has prodded governments to act.
Google, Apple and others say they follow the law wherever they operate and pay what tax is due, while tax specialists point out that companies have a duty to shareholders to organize their affairs in a tax-efficient way within the laws set by politicians.
Pascal Saint-Amans, Director of the OECD's Centre for Tax Policy, said governments' frustration with companies' aggressive tax avoidance had created a "once in a century" opportunity to overhaul the rules, which date back to the League of Nations in the 1930s.
Currently, tax systems respect inter-company contracts even if they evidently seek to shift profits out of countries where they are earned into low or no-tax jurisdictions. New rules will seek to put more emphasis on economic substance, the Paris-based think tank said.
"We clearly have reached the point where the governments don't care any more about taboos, and they just say we cannot be bound by pure contractual arrangements. It's not possible to only allocate the profit through only contractual arrangements," Saint-Amans told reporters.
The OECD, which advises its mainly rich members on tax and economic policy, has two years to come up with specific measures that can be adopted internationally.
Business lobby groups such as the United States Council for International Business (USCIB) and Britain's CBI dispute that there is a broad problem with tax avoidance and say measures to address it could hit job creation, trade and innovation.
Yet non-governmental organizations and those representing smaller or domestically focused companies support the OECD project.
"EEF welcomes today's report and urges the UK and the G20 generally to respond positively to its central recommendations," said Steve Radley, Director of Policy at EEF, which represents many small and medium-sized British manufacturers.
Saint-Amans noted that all OECD members including Switzerland, Ireland and the Netherlands, which have been described as tax havens by lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, had backed the action plan.
The report identified a raft of loopholes used by companies in the technology, pharmaceutical and consumer goods sectors.
These include the practice of companies not creating tax residences or 'permanent establishments' in countries where they have major operations.
The OECD also criticized the corporate practice of designating units in tax havens as holders of group funds, patents or brands that can then be lent or licensed, for generous fees, to affiliates in countries where customers or factories are located.
International treaties designed to avoid double taxation of profits earned from cross-border activities but which have been used to avoid any taxation, are also under scrutiny. Saint-Amans said protocols to amend existing treaties could be developed to stop such "double non-taxation".
He added that representatives of OECD and G20 members who helped draft the plan had rejected an idea favored by some non-governmental groups that would split multinationals' profits among the different countries where they operate, according to an agreed formula, with each country assessing its share of profit.
Such a system exists in the United States for the application of state taxes, but countries agreed it was too complex to adopt internationally.
Some countries had proposed a reform of corporate income tax whereby companies would be taxed where their customers were based, but the group did not accept this idea.