G20 gets tough on tech tax as trade war gets agenda nod

20 bean-counters walk into a bar and ask for a tonic water. The barman asks who picking up the bill, and all fingers are pointed towards Silicon Valley.

In southern Japan, finance ministers and representatives of the central banking organizations have gathered to discuss the world of international and domestic finance. Of course, G20 is about much more than spreadsheets and calculators, but this weekend saw the accountants gather, while in the next room, ministers for trade and the digital economy were setting the world to rights.

Starting with the accountants, Silicon Valley is to remain the political punching bag of 2019.

“Specifically, in the area of international taxation, we will continue to have discussions on a review of the existing tax framework triggered by digitalization, in addition to fighting against tax avoidance and evasion,” Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said in a statement.

Of course, these politicians are savvy enough not to target a specific segment or highlight companies who are abusing the grey areas in the system. There are numerous different organizations outside of the tech sector who are mistreating globalisation trends for tax benefits, though the tech giants are the ones in the limelight right now.

In the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting, new ideas have been tabled suggesting governments around the world will be cracking down on the creative accounting techniques which are becoming ever-so-more common.

According to a communique seen by Reuters, the newly proposed rules would not only make it more difficult for the tech giants to make use of low-tax countries for their benefit, it would also work the other direction. Countries like Ireland, who have benefitted from offering loopholes to the tech giants, would have their freedoms curbed in the pursuit of fairness and a more level global approach.

The new rules would propose two different approaches to taxation. Firstly, companies would have to pay fair tax on the revenues which are derived in the country, and secondly, should the accountants find a way around these rules, a global minimum tax rate could also be introduced. It is the tax version of the Swiss Cheese model; the more layers which are incorporated, the more difficult it is to effectively create a tax evasion model for these organizations to follow.

For countries like the UK and France, this is a win, though the likes of Ireland, Luxembourg and the US will find the outcome frustrating. While the UK and France have been pushing for more stringent tax rules, Ireland and Luxembourg are attempting to protect the light-touch regulatory environments which benefits their own societies but screws everyone else.

The US has suggested any change to taxes was discriminatory to its own companies, effectively a raid on the US economy. Although US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has seemed relatively cordial in reaction to developments, it remains to see whether any further strain is placed on international relationships. The US is already struggling to maintain strong links with certain governments, and this presents another risk to stress relationships.

Mnuchin has also found himself in the news regarding the Huawei conundrum.

The US finance chief has said in Fukuoka that a trade deal between the US and China could ease the firm stance which is threatening to provide collateral damage all around the world. The statement quotes President Donald Trump, who made the suggestion over Twitter a few months back.

For those firms impacted by the ban, the reiteration of this statement might come as some relief, though critics will become increasingly frustrated. It seems the White House has little concern for collateral damage as long as its own ambitions are fulfilled. For the firms who supply products to Huawei or investors who have been left short by such a ban, the ease in which their livelihoods can be used by the White House as a disposable bargaining chip must be incredibly worrying.

This of course was a topic of conversation at the Ministerial Meeting on Trade and Digital Economy also.

“We continued our dialogue to mitigate risks and enhance confidence among exporters and investors, as we committed to do in Mar del Plata last year,” a briefing document states. “We affirmed the need to handle trade tensions and to foster mutually beneficial trade relations.”

While it might seem like a throw-away comment, perhaps we should appreciate the significance of recognising the situation. In most circumstances, governments would steer clear and allow the bickering duo to continue their chest-beating, however in recognising the circumstances perhaps we are closer to someone stepping in and de-escalating the situation.

Clearly neither the US or China can be trusted to be mature and manage the saga for a net-gain, so it might need a third-party to step in. As it stands, no-one is benefiting, and everyone is losing. The winner of this trade war will be the one which can be the least negatively impacted; that should not be considered an effective way to manage international relations.

US attempts first step towards breaking up big tech

The US House Antitrust Subcommittee has formed a bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets, potentially offering a threat to solid foundation of the technology giants.

While the technology giants have increasingly become political punching bags over the last few years, the industry has been pretty effective at dodging any material impact. Many politicians have taken aim, but few have landed a shot. This approach, taking in voices from both sides of the US political spectrum might offer more of a challenge.

“The growth of monopoly power across our economy is one of the most pressing economic and political challenges we face today,” said Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline. “Market power in digital markets presents a whole new set of dangers.

“After four decades of weak antitrust enforcement and judicial hostility to antitrust cases, it is critical that Congress step in to determine whether existing laws are adequate to tackle abusive conduct by platform gatekeepers or whether we need new legislation to respond to this challenge.”

To date, the technology giants have operated with relative regulatory freedom, though the shackles are being dragged towards Silicon Valley. This is not an unusual situation; embryonic industries are often given room to growth and prosper before being tied back with red tape when the influence starts to become notable.

For the tech space, the calls for regulation have been getting lounder month-on-month. GDPR was one of the first major pieces of legislation, while the constant inability of the industry to demonstrate its ability to self-regulate have been forcing the hand of politicians who often do not like to get involved in things they do not understand.

“Big Tech plays a huge role in our economy and our world,” said Congressman Doug Collins. “As tech has expanded its market share, more and more questions have arisen about whether the market remains competitive.

“Our bipartisan look at competition in the digital markets gives us the chance to answer these questions and, if necessary, to take action. I appreciate the partnership of Chairman Nadler, Subcommittee Chairman Cicilline and Subcommittee Ranking Member Sensenbrenner on these important issues.”

Despite negative connotations, monopolies do offer significant benefits to a country, and it seems the US has traditionally been very effective at judging when it is happy to stand-off and when to step-in.

In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed into US law. This act banned trusts and monopolistic combinations that lessened or otherwise hampered interstate and international trade. Although it was not necessarily the most successful of Acts to start with, it soon began to swing into motion.

One of the first monopolies to be attacked by politicians was Standard Oil in 1911. At the time, Standard Oil had cornered 90% of the oil market across the country but was allowed to thrive. It was only broken up, coincidentally, once the firm had finished construction of nationwide train infrastructure, dramatically decreasing the cost of operations. At this point, the Sherman Antitrust Act was used to open up the industry.

There has been a lot more regulation passed in the intervening years since 1890, the Clayton Act was introduced in 1914 to add more clarity to the definition of when a monopoly causes more damage than good, and more industries have been carved up. From sugar and tobacco to meat packaging and, more recently, telecommunications. The trend seems to be the same.

Every time monopolies have been challenged by US politicians there seems to be a watershed moment reached. They might be a few years late with the technology industry, but the same could be said here.

The fact is monopolies offer a concentration of wealth and scale opportunities. A few might be collecting all the riches, but operational efficiencies allow for more rapid growth and expansion. It makes sense to ‘dance with the devil’ for a short period in pursuit of the greater good.

Almost every aspect of the digital economy has now been normalised in the eyes of the mass market, and those areas which haven’t are increasingly becoming standard practice (AI for example). The likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Uber, AirBnB and Microsoft can largely be thanked for that, but now the mission is complete, consumers are open to a new way of spending and ecosystems have the potential to flourish. It seems the benefits of having tech monopolies has passed and the wealth needs to be spread more evenly.

This is of course not to say the tech giants will disappear, or that the House will be successful in their pursuit of increased competition, diversity and evenly dispersed profits.

What the tech giants have become very good at in recent years is lobbying and challenging legislation. One is the subtle art of influence, a shady practise often conducted over dinner or behind closed doors, the other is the heavy hammer of legal expertise, hitting back at new rules with expensive lawyers, fuelled by the profits of market dominance.

The likes of Facebook and Amazon will not take this challenge lying down. Executives make too much money, investors have too much skin in the game and egos are too great to have empires carved apart. These companies have absorbed the blood, sweat and tears of many of these executives, with countless sleepless nights directed towards the pursuit of billions. These executives are dedicated hunters, and they will not let their prey out of their sights without a bloody fight.

One example of the industry winning is Microsoft. In the 90s, Microsoft was challenged on whether it was abusing its position as essentially a non-coercive monopoly. It might have lost the case and has been the focal point of other antitrust cases since, but the red tapers were not successful in breaking up the behemoth.

Other examples of less successful ventures from the politicians focus on the utilities space. In some regions, monopolies are allowed to exist, though strict pricing regulations prevent any, in theory anyway, market abuses. This has stemmed the prospect of flourishing spreadsheets, which would be just as bad an outcome for the tech giants and investors.

Another factor to consider is that of competence. If the politicians are going to be effective in breaking up big tech, they first have to understand how it works today and what the risks of tomorrow are.

There are two problems here. Firstly, the best talent (engineering, accountancy or legal for example) are drafting into the ranks of the technology giants. And secondly, career politicians are more common than not. These are people that specialise in the celebritised-practice which politics has become, they are not leaders of industry as they were in previous generations. This gulf in competence could prove to be a major problem for the Subcommittee.

Monopolies have their place in the economy, at least for a short period of time, and this investigation from the House  Antitrust Subcommittee will aim to figure out whether this time has been reached. First, the politicians have to prove there is evidence of monopolistic abuses, or serious potential, and then comes the difficult job; squaring up to the technology giants, industry experts and the mountains of cash fuelling them.

Silicon Valley doesn’t know where to look in the 2020 Presidential race

Traditionally Silicon Valley has supported Democrat Presidential candidates but, with the resident internet giants increasingly becoming a political punching bag, this might change very quickly.

More specifically, Silicon Valley tends to lean towards ‘progressive’ Democrats. Many of those who would want to be included in this list have been running events in California recently to woo voters and potential donors alike, but these are candidates which have not been friendly to the internet giants in recent months.

Some of those who would call themselves ‘progressive’ Democrats include California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, all of which have made moves against the technology giants for varying reasons. Harris and Booker have sponsored or supported bills which would place greater scrutiny on acquisitions, while Warren made the outlandish promise to break-up big tech and reverse certain acquisitions.

While Warren’s promise might end up meaning very little, we suspect there is too much of a focus on popularity instead of practicality, she has been the focal point of some criticism. Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, another confirmed candidate, poked fun at Warren’s approach instead suggesting the digital economy should be more tightly regulated, avoiding the difficulties of breaking up incredibly complex, private organizations.

The prospect of new regulations is certainly a better option for the internet giants than Warren’s alternative, however O’Rourke is a bit of a difficult horse to back right now. Looking at O’Rourke’s website, it offers little (in fact, zero) insight into potential policies, but if you want to buy a t-shirt this is the place to go.

Of course, regulatory reform is top of the agenda for many of the potential candidates, and the technology industry is a hot topic here as well. Let’s start with the positives.

The majority of the candidates on show were supporters of net neutrality, battling against FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s mission to undo the protections. Of the potential candidates, Washington Governor Jay Inslee might steal the crown here.

California might have grabbed the headlines for introducing localised net neutrality rules, potentially paving the path for a constitutional crisis, however it was Inslee who was the first to put pen to paper. Washington’s localised net neutrality rules were introduced in March 2018, six months ahead of California.

More positive news focuses on the Lifeline Program, an initiative which helps poorer families access broadband options. This is another area which felt the fury of Pai’s administration, though several of the candidates opposed the cutting of funds. Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are three candidates which would support the Lifeline Program.

Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney is another who would want to shake the infrastructure game up. Sticking with the rural digital divide, Delaney is proposing the formation of an Infrastructure Bank, with funds of $50 billion, to help close the virtual chasm. This might sound attractive, but Delaney shares the same anti-China rhetoric as President Donald Trump. And that has been working out really well.

Should one of these individuals win the keys to the White House, the FCC could be in-line for yet another shake-up.

Now onto the negative side of regulatory reform. The privacy and data-handling activities of the internet giants have come under a lot of scrutiny and criticism over the last few months. This is unlucky to change, and perhaps will become a lot more aggressive as politicians search for PR points. This is a popularity contest after all.

Almost every candidate is calling for more regulatory reform, pulling down the curtain which hides the data machine fuelling the sharing economy. No-one who is involved in the data sharing economy, internet giants and telcos alike, want too many of these practises exposed as it would lead to public backlash. The industry has allowed the education of the general public to fall too far behind technological developments; any bold revelations will be scary.

Two candidates are setting themselves out from the pack with bold regulatory change, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Klobuchar’s idea is to introduce a digital dividend on participants of the sharing economy. A levy would be placed on any company which transfers personal data to a third-party, penalising those who monetize data. Those who collect data and use it internally, current or new product development for example, would not be included in the tax.

Yang on the other hand is perhaps proposing the most revolutionary idea; Universal Basic Income (UBI). Effectively, every person over the age of 18 in the US would be entitled to apply to receive $1,000 per month. Yang claims one in three jobs is under risk from automation and AI, therefore the money will help people compensate for this.

The UBI would be funded by consolidating all welfare payments for efficiencies, a new value added tax (VAT), new revenues through increased consumer disposable income and improvements to other areas such as healthcare. However, we suspect this would not cover the outgoings, so it would not be unfair to assume a tax would be placed on those companies benefiting from automation.

Another development mid-way through last year was an attack on the state sales tax regime which the eCommerce giants have enjoyed for so long. These rules would effectively end tax avoidance benefits so many national players have enjoyed by locating head quarters in states like Delaware. Gillibrand, Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar were Senators to voted in favour of the state led digital sales tax.

What is worth noting is policies are still in their early days, and the genuine lobbying from industry will not have started yet. Who knows what the headline policies will be in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential Election, but the Democrats aren’t looking as Silicon Valley friendly as previous years.

Silicon Valley’s grip on innovation is loosening – KPMG

Silicon Valley is up there with Wall Street as a driver of US economic dominance, but this leadership position is increasingly coming under threat, including from those pesky Europeans.

As it stands, California still maintains that position as Utopia for technology enthusiasts and innovators. There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from culture to cash and climate, but this lofty position is no-longer looking as attractive as alternative cities woo the next generation of economic disruptors.

KPMG is one company which is predicting the downfall of Silicon Valley. After conducting a survey, the consultancy claims 58% of respondents believe the global centre of innovation will have moved out of Silicon Valley over the next four years. Other US cities are of course lodging a challenge, New York, Austin and Boston for example, though Europe and Asia are also having a poke.

Looking at the top ten alternatives which could lead a challenge, New York ranks first, while Beijing, Tokyo, London and Shanghai feature in the top five. Taipei, Singapore, Seoul, Boston and Austin complete the top ten, but there are several other European competitors floating around.

There are numerous factors which KPMG has taken into account, and some of these will start to play heavy on the Silicon Valley case. With 5G being hyped so considerably over the last few years, most of these cities will be on-par when it comes to infrastructure, but you also have to consider the local talent pool, immigration laws, cost of living, availability of private and public investment, mass transit systems and the attractiveness of a city to millennials.

A separate Medium post from investment manager Byrne Hobart is another which is predicting the downfall of Silicon Valley as the global centre of innovation. Hobart questions whether the culture of innovation is dying out in the region, with the money men seeking more stable and predictable investments, but another interesting point is the ‘cost of existing’ as he puts it.

“As long as higher rents raise the cost of starting a pre-revenue company, fewer people will join them, so more people will join established companies, where they’ll earn market salaries and continue to push up rents,” said Hobart.

Not only does the high cost of living prevent talent from joining start-ups, the preference for established companies and the lucrative salaries further pushes up rent, compounding the problem further. This also prevents lower-income earners in other segments living in the region (arts, fashion or media for example), restricting diversification and making it a less attractive region for liberally minded individuals, the type of person the success of Silicon Valley was built on.

When researching the availability of technology jobs across the US, there are of course numerous regions which are growing faster year-on-year than Silicon Valley, though this would be expected considering the overwhelming focus of tech in the Valley. However, cities like Seattle, Austin, Denver and Huntsville are increasingly home to more technology companies, and when you factor in the more proportionate cost of living, it might be an appealing alternative.

Another very interesting development over the last couple of weeks takes place in France. The French government has recently announced an overhaul of visas for employees working for a tech company, making it easier for talent to be recruited internationally. Considering the anti-globalisation and isolationist trends we are seeing in the US, this is development worth taking note of.

There are now 10,000 start-ups that meet the requirements to access the French Tech Visa and hire foreign employees more easily. These visas cost €368 in administrative fees, is valid for four years (and is renewable) and allows employees to switch jobs during this period. The visa also extends to family members. Just as the US is making it more difficult to hire talent, the French government is attempting to empower start-ups to go an seek the best innovators around and attract them to the country.

As far as a challenge to the Silicon Valley dominance, Europe is putting itself in a very strong position. Not only are many of the cities affordable, they are attractive to millennials (culture, arts, history) a key demographic for technology success moving forward. The European Union also creates a wider society and economy, helping organizations grow in multiple markets and source talent from a wider pool.

Another factor to consider is the focus of these regions. Another KPMG research note suggests US companies are looking towards AI as a market disruptor, while IOT is attracting the interest of European companies. Perhaps this suggests a split in the innovation pool, with AI hubs being focused in North America, while IOT dominance could be wrestled across the pond to Europe. R&D is driven by customer needs and demands, therefore this is not an impossible conclusion. Interestingly enough, Japanese companies are leading the demand for robotics, another potential fragmentation of the innovation pool.

Silicon Valley is not going to disappear, but its dominant position is not only being eroded domestically, but internationally. The technology ecosystem is of course going to evolve over the next few years, but who knows where the global hub of innovation will be; there are a lot of candidates putting their hands up.

The big promise of politics just got bigger

The Senator Elizabeth Warren campaign roadshow is officially underway, and the tech giants are sitting in the crosshairs.

We might be slightly protected from it in the UK, but politics in the US has become much more about theatre than concrete issues of today. For every campaign launched, there needs to be a monumental promise made which will shake the foundations of society. For Donald Trump, the wall proved to be that divisive point, and for Warren, it is the spearhead of US political and economic dominance on the global stage; the internet economy.

“I want a government that makes sure everybody – even the biggest and most powerful companies in America - plays by the rules,” Warren said in a Medium post.

“And I want to make sure that the next generation of great American tech companies can flourish. To do that, we need to stop this generation of big tech companies from throwing around their political power to shape the rules in their favour and throwing around their economic power to snuff out or buy up every potential competitor.

“That’s why my administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition — including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google.”

And just like Trump’s wall, in reality this promise is nothing more than a PR plug to grab headlines.

Stepping up the hubris game

President Donald Trump is the master and current reigning champion of this competition.

In 2015, Trump entered the world of politics with wide-sweeping messages of hate, xenophobia and borderline racism. These political sound bites, designed to rouse in Middle America and drive forgotten voters to the polls, culminated in the claim he would force Mexico to pay for a wall which would span the width of the US southern borders. Three years into his presidency, Trump is still searching for the wall’s funding, and Warren could be walking into the same problem.

Breaking up the internet giants, the very companies who drove the US economy for years and have now become the world’s punching bag, is a daunting task. It might sound attractive to voters, the people who seek fortunes but cannot congratulate those who have found them, but what happens if Warren is unable to deliver on the marquee promise of her campaign?

This is the very dilemma which Trump is currently facing. His campaign was built on the promise of the wall, but the world still awaits the delivery. Warren is now promising an outcome which will not come easily, potentially becoming the architect of her own downfall, offering ammunition to critics and opponents.

Big promises = big problems

Warren’s promises are a threat to the giants of Silicon Valley, and you can guarantee the lobby machine has already been kicked up a gear.

First, Warren is promising new legislation which will designate some business activities as ‘Platform Utilities’. Facebook is an example, and it does appear Warren’s vision is to separate the functional aspect of the platform from participation activities. It sounds very logical, but you have to consider that the platform in these companies is essentially run as a loss leader; these platforms are free for the consumer and would not exist if the parent company was not entitled to monetize the user.

“These companies would be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform,” said Warren. “Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory dealing with users. Platform utilities would not be allowed to transfer or share data with third parties.”

It would be interesting to hear how Warren thinks Facebook or the Google search engine would continue to function if the ability to make money was removed.

The second major point to consider from this post is the unwinding of what could be perceived as anti-competitive mergers.

At Google, Waze, Nest and DoubleClick are the three transactions which are considered anti-competitive, and therefore under these new plans would be reversed. We believe there are two major issues with this promise.

Firstly, removing these aspects of the business would be incredibly difficult, verging on impossible. This might not be the case for some, Nest for example, however DoubleClick is now so deeply embedded in various different functions of the Google business where do you even start?

Secondly, hindsight is an issue. Some of these transactions are only deemed as anti-competitive because of the success. DoubleClick may well not have been a success without the scale and power of Google. The company is being punished for being good at what it does.

In this case, 1+1+1 = 4. This transaction has been deemed as anti-competitive because of the sum of the parts. Google has collected several different components to make a greater result. Individually, each component is powerful, but the outcome is greater.

The not-so-slumbering giants

Google, Amazon, Facebook and numerous others will not take this aggressive attack on the basic business principles of Silicon Valley lying down.

Warren will not be the only politician to make a move against the wealth, power and influence of the internet giants, but the lobby and legal challenges will be astronomical. Should this promise get anywhere near a draft bill or even legislation to pass through the House, legal challenges will be lodged, PR propaganda will be launched, and in-direct, passive-aggressive threats will be made.

Lawyers are excellent at slowing the wheels of progress, and many of the world’s best lawyers call Silicon Valley home.

We suspect the Warren campaign team has not thought this strategy through entirely, there are too many holes and illogical conclusions. From a conceptual perspective, this is the Mexico wall promise in shape-shifting form. It is a promise which sounds attractive to voters but will be almost impossible to deliver.

That said, theatre in US politics works, and Silicon Valley is home to the bad guys right now. We suspect a political administration hell-bent on breaking-up the internet giants will fail, but it could be a big enough promise to attract votes.

UK sets out battle plan to tackle Silicon Valley’s ‘Digital Gangsters’

Facebook is only the tip of the iceberg, but Parliament is coming after Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley cronies in the long-standing battle to understand and curb the influence of social media.

Featuring representatives from both sides of the political aisle led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), this perhaps set the scene for one of the most aggressive stances against the social media giants. If all the recommendations are followed up on, there could be some major disruption on the horizon.

New regulations, new definitions for the business model, a new regulator, new fines, new competition investigations and new levies against the internet players, the outcome certainly justifies the months spend investigating the complex and diverse tapestry of social media and its impact on today’s society.

“We hope that the Government will include these considerations when it reviews the UK’s competition powers in April 2019, as stated in the Government response to our Interim Report,” the report states in its concluding statements. “Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law.”

Such is the pace of the legislative machine, nothing will change in the immediate future, but this is an important first step into the red-tape maze of regulation. This parliamentary committee, and the subsequent report, are laying the foundations for the future. The scene has been set, with the committee painting a complex picture of deception, greed and mistrust, readying bureaucrats for an assault.

To understand how we have gotten to this point you have to go back to Cambridge Analytica scandal. Until this point the data economy was thundering along relatively undisturbed, free from the worries of regulation and oversight, however this scandal pulled the curtain back ever so slightly. The data machine was slightly exposed, but ever since politicians have been clawing to understand the cogs and levers.

But what does this report recommend? Firstly, new regulatory mechanisms. The parliamentary committee has suggested the formation of a new regulatory body, which will be funded by levies placed on the internet companies wishing to operate in the UK, which would have greater insight and powers to pry open business models and processes. Another interesting recommendation is the creation of new definitions for the internet economy.

This is part of the issue today and the reason internet giants have so much freedom. Rules have been designed for different types of organizations for a bygone era. To compensate for the inadequacy of the rulebook, new clauses have been built on top. The issue has been compounded, creating a complicated red-tape maze with loop holes, secret corridors and grey areas for lawyers to expose. The shaky foundations have not provided a suitable mechanism to hold the segment accountable.

The report states what many already know but little has been done to correct. These social media companies are no-longer simply ‘platforms’ and neither are they ‘publishers’, therefore they should not be regulated as such. A new definition should be created, with rules specific to this segment. It’s amazing to think it has taken this long to come to this conclusion, but the committee is pushing for specific rules for specific circumstances.

The report also calls for a new ‘code of ethics’, designed by independent experts and overseen by the newly created regulatory body, to hold the internet giants accountable. Using the same principle as Ofcom uses for the regulation of broadcasters, these rules would be specific to the case. It would be a square peg for a square hole.

This new approach may also be extended to the murky world of political campaigning also. After the ICO called for a pause of political spending during election periods last year, the committee has responded by suggesting new powers which would:

“…define digital campaigning, including having agreed definitions of what constitutes online political advertising, such as agreed types of words that continually arise in adverts that are not sponsored by a specific political party.”

Again, this is a criticism of the sluggish nature of regulation, not recognising the world has evolved. New rules should reflect the new digital landscape, the changing methods of promoting messages and microtargeted political campaigning. More transparency will be suggested, “clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and videos, indicating the source and the advertiser”, as well as new transparency metrics for campaigns to declare such activities.

Perhaps a more dangerous area which has finally been addressed is the in-direct campaigning which benefits or detracts from parties and individuals. These are organizations such as Leave.EU, which had no direct link to political bodies but presenting questionable materials to individuals through the hyper-targeted advertising model offered by social media companies. This takes the committee into the nefarious world of foreign influence also.

Finally, the committee is also tasking the Competition Markets Authority (CMA) to conduct an extensive investigation into the power and influence of the social media companies. Again, this means little for the moment, but it could be the first step towards identifying potential ‘monopolies’, providing justification to break up the gathering empires.

This aspect of the report leans on documentation sourced by Six4Three, a tech company which is suing Facebook for in-appropriately influencing the success of its products.

“Given the contents of the Six4Three documents that we have published, it should also investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of Facebook’s business practices towards other developers, to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail,” the report states.

The content of this report should not be dismissed as busywork for boresome bureaucrats but a direct threat to the success of Silicon Valley. The internet companies should be very worried about the content of this report, the conclusions these politicians have drawn and the potential implications of any recommendations. This is a political hot point right now, and we suspect there is enough ill-feeling towards the internet players to take these suggestions forward.

Facebook is the company which is constantly attracting the headlines, but this company is just one of many. The mentality has spread throughout the digital ecosystem, but Facebook is the scape goat. Unfortunately for all those involved, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has continued to antagonise politicians by refusing to show up to briefings, compounding the problem and rallying political enemies towards a single cause.

Although these recommendations are only the first steps into the complicated world of regulation, there is potential for significant disruption. With GDPR bubbling away in the background, and further privacy regulations in the pipeline, the basic business model of the internet giants is being challenged here. This document could be a defining factor in the future of the digital economy.

California data dividend sounds nice but shows digital economy ignorance

The State of California might be making friends in Silicon Valley with its defence of net neutrality rules, but in proposing a ‘data dividend’ on the digital economy, these kinships might turn sour very quickly.

In his ‘State of the State’ speech this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a new ‘data dividend’ which would see internet players who monetise user’s personal information have to pay those users for the privilege, according to CNBC. This might sound like a lovely idea to share the wealth, but you can guarantee Silicon Valley is going to throw a temper tantrum about this.

“California’s consumers should also be able to share in the wealth that is created from their data,” said Newsom.

Aside from the revolt from the likes of Google and Facebook which is bound to be on the horizon, Newsom has joined the long list of politicians who are demonstrating they don’t understand how the digital economy functions. Social media platforms or video hosting websites are offered for free to the consumer because data is taken as payment. The value exchange is a free service for the permission to monetise personal data.

While this might sound like an excellent way for Newsom to score political points with the voters of California, you have to wonder how the internet players are going to react. There will of course be intense lobbying, but should the proposal make it into the rulebook, will services continue to be offered for free? Perhaps the internet players will replace lost revenues created by the digital dividend with a paywall?

Some politicians appear to be very anti-profit when it comes to the internet players, seemingly believing platforms like Facebook and Twitter are a public service not private corporations with shareholders to keep happy. These are companies which should of course be held accountable when it comes to data privacy and protection standards, but the value exchange in the digital economy has been accepted as a business model which benefits both sides of the equation.

This is not the first time such an idea has been aired, though rarely has it floated out of such senior political offices. The profits which flow into Silicon Valley are being attacked from numerous sides currently, but you also have to ask what others impacts there will be on the development of the digital economy.

One of the reasons the technology industry has been advancing so quickly in recent years is the aggressive investments which have been made in R&D by Silicon Valley. The likes of Amazon and Google are certainly not shy about searching for the next big idea, fully embracing the concept of fail-fast, but the confidence in these investments exists partly because of the commercial successes of the core business models. Sustained erosion of these revenue channels might well result in smaller R&D operations.

Not only will this slow down improvements to customer experience, it could also place speed bumps in-front of momentum. The US technology industry is advancing very quickly, with some truly wonderful and ludicrous ideas being explored (See Google’s Loon), but this progress could stutter when you attack the ways these companies make money.

The battle between Silicon Valley and rule makers is raging for several reasons. The internet companies have been caught with their pants down in the data protection and privacy realms, though their resistance to collaboration is antagonising politicians. Silicon Valley is desperately trying to side-road and resist any new rules to govern the digital economy, as any major corporation would, but these rules are of course critical for positive societal development. The more Silicon Valley resists, the more aggressive proposals will be put forward.

We strongly agree with the calls to increase regulation on the digital economy, but you have to pick your battles. What would be the benefit to the user with these rules? A couple of dollars a year, nothing which will turn heads, but what will be the consequences?

Hold the internet players to more stringent data protection rules. Enforce more consent regulations. Ensure these companies pay fair and reasonable tax. But destroying a generally accepted way to make money will probably not end well. We suspect this might be a net loss in the long-run.

France continues charge against Silicon Valley

The City of Paris has joined the overarching French battle against Silicon Valley, suing Airbnb for publishing 1,000 illegal rentals adverts.

Over the last couple of weeks, France has become increasingly irked with Silicon Valley. This quest is not from the French government alone, but the anti-internet sentiment seems to be spreading throughout the country.

Here, the City of Paris has lodged its complaints against online marketplace and hospitality firm Airbnb, suggesting the website is illegally advertising properties. According to Reuters, home owners are allowed to rent out their properties for 120 days a year, but the home owner must be registered to ensure compliance.

Several countries around the world have expressed concerns over the impact of Airbnb on local markets, suggesting locals are suffering as profiteers increase housing prices while the traditional hospitality industry is being cripple, but this seems to be one of the first and most aggressive complaints. Paris is suing Airbnb for missing registration details on more than 1,000 adverts. With new national legislation in 2018 provisioning €12,500 per illegal posting, the fine could certainly go north very quickly.

“The goal is to send a shot across the bows to get it over with unauthorized rentals that spoil some Parisian neighbourhoods,” said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

While this might be a headache for Airbnb, this is just one example of France taking a more aggressive stance against Silicon Valley. Aside from this case, the French tax administration recently managed to get Apple to pay €500 million in back-taxes, data protection regulator CNIL has fined Google for GDPR violations, the country is also attempting to rollout ‘right to be forgotten rules’ worldwide and the French government is pressing ahead with plans to hold internet companies accountable to fair and reasonable tax rates.

The final one is perhaps one of the most interesting cases as it demonstrates a break from Europe. The tax strategies of the internet giants have now become infamous, though Europe wanted to tackle these regulatory oversights as a bloc. With the 28 members states not being able to come to any form of agreement, it had seemed the Silicon Valley lobbyists had won, but France was not done, deciding to go alone with its own 3% sales tax on revenues derived within its borders; the internet giants might be able to hide profits, but they haven’t found a good way to hide IP addresses yet.

While the world is certainly turning against the internet players, thanks mainly to data breaches and privacy scandals over the last 18 months, few countries are taking such an aggressive stance as the French. Considering how friendly some nations are to the internet players (see Ireland and Luxembourg) we can’t see this trend spreading everywhere across the European Union, but it will be interesting to see how many member states are buoyed on by the French foray.

France takes on Apple in tax dispute… and wins

The French government has bagged a win in its quest to hold Silicon Valley accountable to fair and reasonable taxation rules with €500 million secured from Apple.

Apple has confirmed to Reuters it has settled a dispute over taxes due to the French purses over a 10-year period, though local newspapers are suggesting the figure is roughly €500 million. France is leaking the European battle against the slippery accountants of the internet giants, though whether this has any knock-on effect across the rest of the bloc remains to be seen. We suspect there will be a mixed reaction.

“As a multinational company, Apple is regularly audited by fiscal authorities around the world,” Apple France said in a statement to Reuters. “The French tax administration recently concluded a multi-year audit on the company’s French accounts, and those details will be published in our public accounts.”

The taxation strategies of the internet giants have become infamous over the years, as many feel the frat-boys of the technology industry are taking advantage. With such incredible revenues, governments will be keen to hold these companies accountable and France is showing that it can actually be done.

Over the last few months, the European Commission has been tabling various different ideas to ensure the internet giants pay a fair and reasonable tax rate. A 3% sales tax on all revenues generated in the specific territories looked to be the best option moving forward, but the power of the bloc proved to be its downfall; getting 28 nations to agree to the same idea was never going to be easy.

With countries like Ireland and Luxembourg building successful economies around enabling tax havens, and other countries such as Sweden giving birth to companies which benefit from the rules, some were always going to offer opposition. Why would these countries want to be the architect of their own downfall?

What this victory for France shows the rest of the bloc is that results can be achieved by going alone. Some of the other critics of the creative taxation strategies of the internet giants, such as the UK and Germany, may well move forward aggressively.

The residents of Silicon Valley, and some in Washington DC, might suggest US companies are victims of sticky-fingered bureaucrats, though it is difficult to have sympathy for companies which have become experts at finding and widening gaps in regulations.

The big question is who is next on France’s hit list.

Lobbying on the up as Silicon Valley feels the regulatory squeeze

The internet giants have started filing their lobbying reports with the Center for Responsive Politics with records being shattered all over the place.

Each quarter US companies are legally required to disclose to Congress how much has been spend on political lobbying. Although the figures we are about to discuss are only for the US market, international players will certainly spend substantially more, it gives a good idea of the pressure which the internet players are facing. Governments are attempting to exert more control and Silicon Valley doesn’t like it.

Looking at the filings, having spent $4.9 million in the final three months, Google managed to total $21.2 million across the whole of 2018, a new high for the firm. This compares to $18.3 million spent across 2017.

Facebook is another which saw its lobby bill increase. In its latest filing, Facebook reported just over $3 million for Q4, and totalled almost $13 million across the year. In the Facebook case it should hardly be surprising to see a massive leap considering the scale and the depth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal which it has not been able to shake off.

More filings will be due over the next couple of days, the deadline for the fourth quarter period was January 22, though the database search tool is awful. What is worth noting is this is set to be the biggest year for internet lobby spend, however it is still nothing compared to the vast swathes which are spend elsewhere.

Lobby tableIn total, the internet industry might have spent a whopping $68.7 million on lobbying Washington over 2017 (2018 data is still not complete), but that is nothing compared to more mature industries. The Oil and Gas segment spent $126 million, while Insurance pumped $162 million into the lobbyists pockets, but the winner by a long was the pharmaceutical industry spending an eye-watering $279 million on lobbyists across the year (see image for full list).

As you can see, the ceiling has been set very high for lobbying and it will almost certainly increase over the next couple of years. All around the world governments and regulators are attempting to exert more control over the internet industry, and while the lobbying process isn’t necessarily attempting to block these new rules, the aim will be to get the best deal possible.

In comparison to other industries, the internet specifically and technology on the whole is relatively new. You have to take into account the internet as a mass market tool is only in its teen years and is demonstrating the same rebellious tendencies as young adults do. New ideas are being explored and boundaries are being pushed; with some breakthroughs rules do not exist, while the emergence of new business models means companies fall into the grey areas of regulation. The internet has been operating relatively untethered over the last few years, though this is changing.

2018 was a year where it all started to hit home. Countless data breaches demonstrated the digital world is one where security has not been nailed, while data privacy scandals have shown how dated some regulations are. It doesn’t help that Silicon Valley seems to operate behind a curtain which only the privileged few are allowed to peak behind, but even if this barrier was thrown open, only a small percentage of the world would actually understand what was going on or how to regulate it effectively.

GDPR was a step in the right direction in handing control of personal information back to the user, but this only applies to European citizens. Other countries, such as India, are learning from these regulations with the ambition of creating their own, but it is still very early days. The rules and regulations of the digital economy are being shaped and the internet giants will certainly want to influence proceedings to ensure they can still continue to hoover up profits in the manner which they have become accustomed to.

Looking at where money has been spent, data privacy and security concerns is a common theme with all the internet players who want to protect their standing in the sharing economy, though mobile location privacy issues is another shared concern. With data getting cheaper, more people will be connected all the time, opening the door for more location-based services and data collection. This could be big business for the internet giants, though it has been targeted by privacy advocates looking to curb the influence of Silicon Valley. Other issues have included tax reforms, antitrust and artificial intelligence.

So yes, a remarkable amount of cash is being spent by the likes of Google and Facebook at the moment, but this will only grow in time as regulators and legislators become more familiar with the business of the internet and, more importantly, how to govern it.