Frenzy of snooping as Norway puts all tax records online
By Elizabeth Davies
Wednesday, 12 October 2005
For anyone who has ever wondered what their boss earns or how much their friends and neighbours are worth: move to Norway. Oslo has set a new standard in transparency by publishing all citizens' tax records online.
Norwegians have been thrown into a frenzy of snooping following the publication of the latest tax records on the internet.
The financial affairs of everyone from football stars and high-earning executives to the youthful heirs of large fortunes have been laid bare in national newspapers after the annual lists, which have been available for public scrutiny since 2002, were put online last week.
The daily newspaper Aftenposten has focused its attention on Norway's best known businessmen, such as the hotel tycoon Olav Thon, who took home some 1.4 million crowns (£123,000) after tax. It has splashed lists of the top 10 wealthiest writers, lawyers, actors and comedians across its front pages.
The tabloid paper VG delves into the not-so-private financial affairs of glamorous footballers and members of the Norwegian royal family - revealing, for example, that the junior royal Pia Haraldsen took home 185,000 crowns after tax - while the country's leading entrepreneurs, from stock-brokers and economists to media tycoons, are the targets of the financial daily DN's online investigations.
But it is not only the great and good whose tax records are accessible to all and sundry: nobody in Norway can escape the prying eyes of those curious enough to search a person's details on the online database. All that is needed for a full run-down on an individual's financial status, their tax payments and income is their name, address and age.
Enthralled by this glimpse into the private lives of their acquaintances, Norwegians are searching like mad for details on their bosses, colleagues, friends and neighbours before the records are removed from the internet at the end of this month.
Tax returns have been theoretically accessible to the public in Norway since 1863, but, until two years ago, it required a lengthy process of application in person at a local tax office, which generally acted as deterrent for all but the keenest of snoops. The launch in 2002 of a searchable database of tax records was greeted with a storm of controversy from those who - for whatever reason - were unwilling to have citizens' private affairs made available for all to see.
It took just one year for these critics to temporarily scupper the scheme, and, in 2003, the right-wing government led by the then prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik passed a law restricting online access to financial records to a maximum of three weeks from the day of publication.
But the step was vehemently opposed by journalists and campaigners committed to transparency in Norwegian society, and it appears likely that the recently elected left-leaning government of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg will abandon the deadline for next year's lists.