Austria and Australia join the march against Silicon Valley

The days of the wild-west internet seem to be coming to a close with Austria and Australia becoming the latest nations to update the rules governing the business activities of the internet giants.

At the foot of the Alps, the Austrians are proposing a new 5% sales tax on digital revenues which are realised in the country, another European state to tackle the ‘creative’ accounting practices of Silicon Valley. Down under, the Australian Government plans on introducing tougher rules which will place greater accountability on social media platforms for extreme and offensive content.

For years the world watched in amazement as the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon climbed higher up the ladder of influence. We gazed in wonderment as Silicon Valley seemed to pluck profits out of thin-air and their CEOs hit celebrity status. But then the scandals started to roll-in and we all realised these companies had abused the privilege of self-regulation.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the watershed moment, a saga which dominated headlines around the world for months and hauled politicians away from free lunches and back into the debating chambers. All of a sudden everyone realised the likes of Zuckerberg, Bezos and Page were not our friends, but incredibly intelligent businessmen who were exploiting the grey areas sitting idly between the mass of criss-crossing red-tape.

What followed this scandal was a more forensic look at the business models of the internet giants. Those looking close enough found trickily worded terms and conditions, confusing processes, ransom opt-ins and abused freedoms. Users were being tracked without their knowledge, personal information was being traded as a commodity and tax havens were being exploited. Opinion on Silicon Valley turned sour.

On the other side of the coin, it wasn’t just the craft and cunning of Silicon Valley lawyers to blame, but inadequate rules for today’s digital era. Politicians and regulators woke up to the fact rules and legislation needed to be updated to create a fair and reasonable policy landscape to hold the internet giants accountable. Experts were brought in to account for the vast gulf in competence and the march towards Silicon Valley began.

A perfect storm has been brewing around the internet giants and as the weeks pass more countries are taking a more stringent approach to the business of the internet. Australia has been trundling along with incremental progress, and now Austria has entered the fray.

“Through the digital tax package, we are closing tax loopholes and thereby ensuring that large digital corporations, agency platforms and retail platforms are called to account,” said Austrian Finance Minister Hartwig Löger. “Through fair taxation of the digital economy, we are establishing equity in taxation.”

Moving forward, a digital tax of 5% will be introduced for large digital corporations, those with global sales of € 750 million, of which €25 million originates in Austria. The new rules will also take away VAT exemptions for deliveries from foreign countries. Previously, orders valued below €22 were exempt from the tax.

“Through this measure, we are taking digital agency platforms to task,” said State Secretary of Finance Hubert Fuchs. “No one is entitled to evade the obligation to pay tax.”

Austria is of course not alone in this tax assault. As the member states of the European Union cannot agree on a bloc-wide tax mechanism, plans were blocked by nations who benefit from the status quo such as Ireland, individual states have gone on alone. France and the UK have already set plans in motion, but we expect such proposals to start snowballing before too long.

Australia is targeting a different area of contention however. Following events in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the simultaneous live-streaming of the incident, the Australian Government has introduced new rules which will hold social media and other social media platforms accountable for the dissemination of offensive material.

The Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill creates new offences for content service providers and hosting services who fail to act expeditiously to remove videos containing “abhorrent violent conduct”. Such conduct is defined as terrorist acts, murders, attempted murders, torture, rape or kidnap.

The technology community and legal experts have slammed the new rules, and while there are some valid points, the social media and hosting platforms might have to be forced forward. It is an incredibly difficult task to identify these videos, such is the complexity of identification in such as vast swarm of uploaded content nowadays, but without the threat of penalty there is a risk progress will not move at a desired pace.

Following the incident, Facebook pointed out that it did take down the video quickly, though it was not able to use AI to identify the content. This is where it becomes incredibly difficult for the technology industry; these applications need abhorrent content to be trained to identify abhorrent content. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation, but harsh penalties for non-compliance will force the industry to find a solution.

“We have heard feedback that we must do more – and we agree,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a letter to the New Zealand Herald. “In the wake of the terror attack, we are taking three steps: strengthening the rules for using Facebook Live, taking further steps to address hate on our platforms, and supporting the New Zealand community.”

Sandberg has promised new restrictions on how live videos can be uploaded and streamed to the platform, though details were incredibly thin. Facebook will not want to introduce too many restrictions, making the process too convoluted and tiresome will impact user experience, though it clearly has to do something. The opportunity to broadcast horrific acts has become too accessible.

This is the problem which Facebook and everyone else in the digital economy is facing. The promise is to open up the gates and allow people to express themselves, but unfortunately there are people who will take advantage of this situation. It is an incredibly difficult equation to balance.

Technology will eventually help the internet companies get to a suitable position, with the potential of AI grafting through the millions of uploads, however the training period is going to be a difficult process. The risk of going too sensitive is restricting free speech, though with content uploaded from shows such as Game of Thrones, there is plenty of room for error.

The internet giants will want to resist change, despite giving the impression of encouraging more regulation and government intervention, but it won’t be able to hold back the tides forever. With privacy concerns, fake news, tax evasion, political influence, anti-trust accusations and the unknown power of data analytics, the internet giants are simply fighting on too many fronts.

These are companies who have incredible financial power and immense armies of lobbyists, but Silicon Valley is the bad guy right now. Politicians have spotted an opportunity to make PR points by unloading on the punching bag, and you can guarantee there will be many lining up to take a swing.

France and Germany give OTTs early Xmas gift in digital tax saga

Europe ambitious plans to hold the internet giants accountable to fair and reasonable taxation have been temporarily scuppered after resistance from several nations, most notably France and Germany.

While Silicon Valley is still not in the clear, the internet giants will be breathing a deep sigh of relief as their hard-working lobbyists are given another couple of months to influence the plans. France and Germany seem to be the main opponents of the aggressive tax assault, drawing up their own suggestions at the G20 Summit which would allow many of the biggest players to continue to dodge the tax man.

The initial plan was relatively simple; hold the internet players accountable to fair and reasonable conditions by implementing a 3% tax on digital revenues realised in EU member states. This would have placed all the current tax dodgers on the block. The Franco-German joint declaration was supposed to be a compromise, answering the initial opposition, but it seems this watered-down version is not going far enough.

While the Franco-German version of the digital tax certainly is much diluted compared to the initial proposals, it has still been resisted by other players who are protecting their own interests. It seems the ‘all for one and one for all’ theoretical attitude of the European Union does not translate directly into Irish or Norwegian.

“Following a thorough analysis of all technical issues, the presidency put forward a compromise text containing the elements that have the most support from member states,” a statement from The European Council reads. “However, at this stage a number of delegations cannot accept the text for political reasons as a matter of principle, while a few others are not satisfied yet with some specific points in the text. That text did not gain the necessary support and was not discussed in detail.”

Unfortunately for the European Union, this is the issue with any material changes made to rules and regulations. A collection of 27 member states certainly creates influence on the global and political stage, though it only takes one detractor to spoil any plans.

Looking at the suggested middle ground, a Franco-German joint declaration made a point which will please some more than others. The objection here is down to the wording of the proposal with France and Germany believing advertising revenues should be targeted, pushing Facebook and Google into the line of fire, as opposed to digital revenues as a generic term.

In France and Germany, some of the world’s largest internet-based businesses would gain a reprieve. Should the new rules target digital advertising revenues specifically, while subscription services, hardware and online marketplaces would escape. The likes of Amazon, Apple and Spotify would be free to continue practising their suspect taxation strategies.

The pattern of affairs here is something which should be pleasing for the internet giants, or at least most of them. What started as an assault on the internet players is starting to look like a very different battle nowadays, leaning much more towards Google and Facebook specifically.

These two might feel a bit victimised, but the ways things are heading it looks like a deal which is accepted by every member state would not be the victory the Brussels bureaucrats originally envisioned. With bureaucrats under pressure to produce a plan, accepted by all member states by March 2019, a lighter touch approach will be needed. We suspect such a plan will be put together, championed as a revolutionary position, though the internet players will be given enough wiggle room to ensure there is no meaningful victory.

What will help internet players sleep at night is the knowledge they only need to get one member state on side to veto the battle plan. Rev up the lobby machine!

EU divided on digital tax

Fears over a reaction from the US has sent Finance Ministers from Ireland, Sweden and Denmark cowering back to their spreadsheets as the EU digital tax hits an early stumbling block.

While the collective bargaining power and protection afforded by the European Union is certainly useful, the cumbersome nature of the bureaucratic beast and unanimous decision making ensures it is anything but. As with many proposed rule changes in the past, objections from a handful of member states have slammed the emergency brakes on the digital tax, aimed at holding the internet giants accountable.

According to the Guardian, the Finance Ministers of Ireland, Sweden and Denmark have all aired their criticism not on the concept of the tax, but fears over what President Trump might suggest as a retaliation. There’s a pragmatic approach to business and there’s spineless appeasement to a bully, we’ll let you decide which one this is.

Of course, it would be unfair to herd all of the EU member states into the same cowardly-corner as Ireland, Sweden and Denmark. 12 member states are already moving ahead with their own plans to create a localised digital tax, including the UK as was announced during the Autumn Budget, and some are acting somewhat hawkish about it. The French Government has suggested it would like the tax rates on the playing field by the end of 2018, though Germany seems to be favouring a more watered-down version of the rules.

The EU wide tax on those taking advantage of creative tax regimes, would be the best solution however. A united front against the slippery Silicon Valley internet giants, as well as those from other nations around the world, would of course be the best way to claim that 3% of local revenues, but it is becoming more difficult to imagine that a reality.

The fainthearted trio do of course have something to worry about. Despite Trump slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and threatening to revamp tax laws so Amazon cannot take advantage of the US tax havens, he would most likely take the US tax as an attack on American values and a threat to the borders. The President is a man or rarely recognises consistency and before too long will probably be describing Jeff Bezos as a close family friend who have been relentlessly pursued by the penny-pinching Europeans.

Ireland also has a lot to lose. After proving it was incapable of managing its finances in a responsible way, the technology giants could be seen as somewhat of a saviour to the economy. Apple, Facebook and Google are just a few names who house a considerable base in the country. Ireland certainly has its own interests to protect.

It’s disappointing to see such weak behaviour in the face of an orange-hued, bullying politician, but at least there are some nations who are prepared to go it alone and hold the internet giants accountable to fair taxation.