France goes solo in quest to hold Silicon Valley accountable

With some European nations unable to summon up the courage to tackle the infamous creative tax strategies of the internet giants, France has decided to write its own rules.

The topic of a digital tax which would span the length and breadth of the European continent was initially a popular one. Perhaps it was the camaraderie which swept the states into the tides of change, or maybe there as a brief window to score political PR points, though the momentum has not carried through. Initial plans were abandoned, water-down ones vetoed by self-interested nations, and France has had enough.

Announced on French national television, Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire laid out the new tax plans which will come into play on January 1. Over the course of the next twelve months, Le Maire believes the new structure will generate €500 million for the state.

“The digital giants are the ones who have the money,” said Le Maire. “[the internet players] make considerable profits thanks to French consumers, thanks to the French market, and they pay 14 percentage points of tax less than other businesses.”

It might not be the collective-push back against Silicon Valley which was initially proposed, but it is progress. Waiting for all 28 (soon to be 27) states to agree on a co-ordinated approach would have taken years, such is the bureaucratic struggle and the lobby power of the internet players, so it is quite refreshing for the French to say enough is enough and take a prominent stance against those who have been obviously and unashamedly abusing tax loopholes.

While many would point to the beauty of the European Union, offering scale to negotiate more effective trade deals, the beast has emerged from the shadows in this saga. For any meaningful changes to be implemented, all states would have to agree. This was always going to be a stumbling block. Sweden voiced concerns, unsurprising as Spotify was one of those firms in the crosshair, while Ireland vetoed on the grounds it would potentially damage trade relationships with the US.

Thankfully the French are not scared of said repercussions. Or perhaps we should be more accurate. There might be fear, but that does not mean the French are going to allow the internet players to run wild. The White House might suggest this is a tax aimed at the US economy, but that is irrelevant as far as we are concerned. This is a tax reform which is overdue.

Whether this inspires the other nations to move in the right direction remains to be seen, though the UK might not wait around either. Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has previously stated he, or the UK government, would not wait for the rest of Europe to hold Silicon Valley accountable.

Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is a fractured tax landscape, with some pushing forward more stringent rules and others getting bullied by the expensive lobbyists. This of course undermines the concept of the European Union, but also opens the door a crack for abuse.

The bureaucrats might attempt to colour in all grey areas, but very expensive lawyers in California will be pouring over any new rules attempting to find the weak spot. And in a fractured tax landscape, there is bound to be a few if you look hard enough.

UK government eyes up Silicon Valley for tax raid

Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has confirmed a ‘digital tax’ in the autumn budget aimed at holding the internet players accountable to reasonable tax rates.

In recent years, the internet giants of the US have become known as much for creatively sidestepping the tax man as they have for innovative products and services, but the playing field is shifting. The European Commission is currently attempting to align the interests of all member states to impose its own tax regime, though Hammond isn’t waiting for the boresome Brussels bureaucrats.

“The UK has been leading attempts to deliver international corporate tax reform for the digital age,” said Hammond in the House of Commons while unveiling the budget. “A new global agreement is the best long-term solution. But progress is painfully slow. We cannot simply talk forever.

“So we will now introduce a UK Digital Services Tax. This will be a narrowly-targeted tax on the UK-generated revenues of specific digital platform business models. It will be carefully designed to ensure it is established tech giants – rather than our tech start-ups – that shoulder the burden of this new tax.”

This is the tricky aspect of the new tax; how do you hold the internet giants accountable within placing too much of a burden on the start-ups? These are companies which need assistance to thrive, and an important segment for the UK. Start-ups, most importantly technology start-ups, have been targeted by the UK government to stimulate the economy in a post-Brexit world, but with the threat of digital tax, will these companies want to choose the UK?

The tax will be targeted at revenues generated through search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. Long story short, 2% of total revenues generated in the UK will be claimed by the tax man, generated £400 million a year, in theory. The new tax regime will come into place in April 2020, though should the European Commission come up with its own approach, the whole scheme might be scrapped.

For years the internet giants have been shifting profits around and claiming suspect charges to reduce exposure to the tax man. According to a Tax Watch UK study looking at Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco Systems and Microsoft, the tax liability in 2017 was estimated at £1.26 billion, though only £191 million was paid.

Politically the digital tax is a win for the Conservative government, though at a time where the UK needs to make as many friends as possible while going through an expensive divorce, it is an interesting approach. With a no-deal Brexit looking increasingly likely, the UK needs to attract new investment into the economy and build relationships with trade partners. Taking a combative approach to tax is hardly going to get the internet giants on side, and might well irritate the US government.

Tackling the creative accountants in Silicon Valley has been a government discussion for years, though whether the aggressive approach from the UK will stimulate any progress through the rest of the world remains to be seen.