Italy challenges Netflix tax strategy

The Italian Government is investigating Netflix after the streaming giant failed to file a tax return in the country.

According to Bloomberg, an investigation has been opened to ascertain whether Netflix is liable to pay tax in the country. Although Netflix does not have offices or staff in the country, it does own fibre-optic cables and servers. The probe will aim to determine whether this is deemed a presence which makes it liable for tax.

Italy is currently in the process of cracking down on multi-nationals which it deems does not contribute a reasonable and fair amount of tax to the national coffers. Gucci owner Kering SA has already agreed to pay $1.37 billion to settle an investigation, while Mastercard is also facing scrutiny. With such a wide-ranging remit, it was only going to be a matter of time before Silicon Valley was brought into the picture.

While it might be causing political friction with the US, the residents of Silicon Valley are facing more scrutiny when it comes to creative taxation strategies. Owing to the nature of the internet and there being no need to maintain a ‘physical’ presence in some countries, many of the Big Tech fraternity have been employing creative tax strategies for years, paying what some would consider miserly in comparison to the profits made.

Europe has had enough of Big Tech seemingly avoiding paying fair and reasonable tax back to the societies they benefit so richly from, and Italy is just one of the cogs in the machine. The UK and France are two other countries taking a more strident approach, though a bloc-wide approach from the European Commission has been scuppered to date by self-serving members such as Ireland and Luxembourg.

What this does have the potential to cause is greater conflict between Italy and the US.

The relationship between the two is increasingly fraught. Yesterday, the US threatened Italy over any potential relationship with Huawei, while it is also on the verge of imposing new tariffs which would threaten the export of Italian wine and cheese. President Trump has already suggested ‘digital taxes’ are a way of Europe bleeding US success, and we suspect few will be happy with Netflix being targeted here.

What is worth noting is that these are very early days in the probe, though there could be some interesting precedent set. If the government argue correctly that hardware counts as a physical, and taxable, presence in a market, it could open the door for more probes into other internet companies who maintain they do not have a physical presence in a market.

What we are unsure about is why Italy is going down this route instead of taking a similar path to the UK and France. Netflix can be forced to declare how many subscribers it has in the Italian market, and therefore how much revenue it is realising. It seems a much simpler means to success to simply apply a sales tax on the revenue which is being taken from Italian subscribers.

Apple and Ireland begin appealing €14.3bn tax bill

Lawyers representing Apple and the Irish Government has begun their arguments in the EU’s lower General Court in an attempt to protect the suspect corporate tax environment.

In 2016, the European Commission ordered the Irish Government to collect back-taxes off Apple to the tune of €14.3 billion, including interest. Apple does not want to pay tax. Ireland does not want to collect it. Europe wants a level playing field. The lawyers are looking forward to nuance to bolster their bank accounts.

During the opening arguments, Apple’s lawyers suggested the European Commission decision “defies reality and common sense,” according to Reuters. Both the iPhone manufacturer and the Irish Government will argue against the decision to tax environment contravenes state aid rules.

Let’s be clear. Ireland is a tax haven. It is facilitating corporate tax avoidance. It is helping corporates collect greater profits without rewarding the societies they strain. Irish Government officials should be embarrassed they are helping technology giants abuse its European partners, the very same European partners which bailed it out of financial doomsday a decade ago.

This is a selfish position, and just at the time when the country is looking to Europe to protect it as Brexit looms large on the horizon.

Some might argue the Irish Government is entitled to charge whatever tax it wants. However, a modern society works because the general public and corporations pay taxes. It pays for roads, schools, hospitals, police officers and postal workers. There are technology giants out there who are asking consumers to strain their wallets further each year and care less about their right to privacy, but they are not willing to contribute to the societies which are fuelling the monstrous profits reported every three months.

With international borders being broken down, much to the distaste of some, irregular taxation policies can be taken advantage of. This is what is happening here. It beggars belief that Ireland can argue the benefits of the single economy, and still maintain this position, weakening the position of partners, depriving them of much needed taxes.

This is not the position the European Commission has taken, but it is the one each of Ireland’s partners in Europe should. Why should Ireland be able to collect all the benefits of Apple’s assaults on the European digital economy when it is citizens of every other nation which is fuelling the iLeader’s growth?

For some, it might sound bizarre that the Irish Government doesn’t want to collect €14.3 billion off Apple, but there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, if the Irish lawyers were not to fight back against the enforced tax run, it is effectively conceded to the assertion that it is a corporate tax haven. The last thing the Irish Government wants to do is admit that it is helping the already richly rewarded residents of Silicon Valley rip-off neighbouring governments further with creative tax strategies.

Secondly, Ireland needs to ensure it is viewed as a friendly corporate-tax environment moving forward if it is to continue to attract corporations to its borders. Ireland doesn’t necessarily have the best talent, it doesn’t have the largest economy and it doesn’t have a local supply chain for manufacturing. It needs a plug to interest the likes of Apple, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Twitter, Pinterest, PayPal and Amazon to house their European HQ in the country.

The value of the technology industry to both the Irish Government and society should not be undervalued. The Irish economy entered severe recession in 2008, and then an economic depression in 2009. The country was in tatters, though it was saved by the technology industry.

Over the last decade, technology giants thrived in the tax haven, creating new jobs directly and indirectly, and continues to be one of the biggest drivers today. Silicon Docks is as important to Dublin as Silicon Valley is to California.

That said, the European Commission does not agree this dynamic should be allowed to continue.

Should the Irish Government continue this favourable tax regime for certain companies, a competitive advantage is offered. The Commission, ably led by Margrethe Vestager, has been tackling anti-competitive business practises for years. If such a monstrous company like Apple is given a competitive advantage, state aid to run riot, start-ups will always be on the back-foot. Competition will likely never emerge, and the consumer will be in a precarious position.

Over the next couple of days, lawyers representing Apple and the Irish Government will argue against the opinion of the European Commission, attempting to overturn an order to collect back-taxes and create a more reasonable tax environment. It will argue that it is perfectly reasonable for it to help Apple bleed the consumer dry and then hide profits from governments who are asking for a fair contribution back to society to pay nurses.

Ireland should be embarrassed.

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.

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 creates new 3 percent tax for internet giants

Unable to convince the EU to impose a special tax on US tech giants, France has decided to go it alone.

Today the French Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire announced the introduction of a bill that will grab 3% of all revenues deemed to have been generated in France by digital companies with sales in excess of €25 million in France and €750 million globally. This seems to cover around 30 companies, but especially Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, which is why it’s being called the GAFA tax.

“This is about justice,” Le Maire reportedly said. “These digital giants use our personal data, make huge profits out of these data, then transfer the money somewhere else without paying their fair amount of taxes.” Funny how new taxes are always in the name of fairness isn’t it?

Said tech giants are unlikely to take this new tax lying down and will presumably threaten some kind of strop in retaliation, but if they want to make money in France they will have to abide by its tax rules. A bigger danger for them will be if France manages to pull this move off as that will presumably give the rest of Europe, and even the world, some funny ideas.

France has been planning something like this for a while but it’s not obvious exactly how it will claim the tax, especially as it expects to tax revenues derived from advertising, which is the main business model of Google and Facebook. France reckons it will trouser at least €500 million a year from this, which will come in handy since its own population doesn’t seem too keen on paying tax these days.

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.

OECD has decided to go ahead with a global digital tax

The OECD member states have agreed to move ahead with the plan to reach a global solution by 2020 to harmonise tax regimes on the digital companies.

The OECD and the G20 have a joint working mechanism, called Inclusive Framework, to address the tax issues related to digital economy, what are covered under an umbrella concept of Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). After the most recent Inclusive Framework meeting held 23-24 January, a Policy Note was published to outline the agreed framework of the future solution.

“The international community has taken a significant step forward toward resolving the tax challenges arising from digitalisation. Countries have agreed to explore potential solutions that would update fundamental tax principles for a twenty-first century economy, when firms can be heavily involved in the economic life of different jurisdictions without any significant physical presence and where new and often intangible drivers of value become more and more important,” said Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration. “In addition, the features of the digitalised economy exacerbate risks, enabling structures that shift profits to entities that escape taxation or are taxed at only very low rates. We are now exploring this issue and possible solutions,” Saint-Amans added.

In essence, the solution will be based on consensus on two key areas, or “pillars”: “One pillar addresses the broader challenges of the digitalised economy and focuses on the allocation of taxing rights, and a second pillar addresses remaining BEPS issue,” as the Note put it.

The first pillar will focus on how to modify the current tax practices based on physical locations of the businesses, re-examining the so-called ‘nexus’ rules, that is how to determine the connection a business has with a given jurisdiction, and the rules that govern how much profit should be allocated to the business conducted there.

The second pillar refers to the issues not yet addressed by the on-going BEPS project. In the past two years, a Forum on Harmful Tax Practices (FHTP), under the aegis of OECD/G20 BEPS Project, has reviewed and assess 255 tax regimes (there can be multiple tax regimes in one tax jurisdiction). The majority of them are either deemed not harmful, or amended to be not harmful, or abolished. These are submitted by signatories on the “Multilateral Convention to Implement Tax Treaty Related Measures to Prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting”. So far, 87 jurisdictions have signed on the Convention. 19 of them have completed their domestic ratification processes, where the Convention has already become effective, or are going to come into effect soon.

However, the Inclusive Framework recognises that BEPS would not be able to cover every loophole, and there would be “continued risk of profit shifting to entities subject to no or very low taxation through the development of two inter- related rules, i.e. an income inclusion rule and a tax on base eroding payments”. Therefore the second pillar will be on how to make the solution more future-proof.

More detailed proposals will be published in the coming weeks, and they will be submitted to the next G20 Summit meeting in June.

The OECD/G20 programme is part of a global move to hold the webscale companies accountable to their tax obligations. Earlier countries like France and Spain have taken the matter in their own hands, while the EU was working to reach a Union-wide consensus but failed be approved by the Council of Finance Ministers. However, if the OECD consensus is accepted by 2021, the EU would withdraw its own tax anyway, according to the original plan.

Tax regulations can become draconian. For example, the US tax code has gone from 400 pages in 1913 to nearly 75,000 pages now. The Inclusive Framework is mindful of the danger, therefore demand the member jurisdictions “to make any rules as simple as the tax policy context permits, including through the exploration of simplification measures.”

The biggest stories of 2018 all in one place

2018 has been an incredibly business year for all of us, and it might be easy to forget a couple of the shifts, curves, U-turns and dead-ends.

From crossing the 5G finish line, finger pointing from the intelligence community, the biggest data privacy scandal to date and a former giant finally turning its business around, we’ve summarised some of the biggest stories of 2018.

If you feel we’ve missed anything out, let us know in the comments section below.

Sanction, condemnation and extinction (almost)

ZTE. Three letters which rocked the world. A government-owned Chinese telecommunications vendor which can’t help but antagonise the US government.

It might seem like decades ago now but cast your mind back to April. A single signature from the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) almost sent ZTE, a company of 75,000 employees and revenues of $17 billion, to keep the dodo company.

This might have been another move in the prolonged technology trade war between the US and China, but ZTE was not innocent. The firm was caught red-handed trading with Iran, a country which sits very prominently on the US trade sanction list. Trading with Iran is not necessarily the issue, it’s the incorporation of US components and IP in the goods which were sent to the country. ZTE’s business essentially meant the US was indirectly helping a country which was attempting to punish.

The result was a ban, no US components or IP to feature in any ZTE products. A couple of weeks later manufacturing facilities lay motionless and the company faced the prospect of permanent closure, such was its reliance on the US. With a single move, the US brought one of China’s most prominent businesses to its knees.

Although this episode has been smoothed over, and ZTE is of course back in action, the US demonstrated what its economic dirty bombs were capable of. This was just a single chapter in the wider story; the US/China trade war is in full flow.

Tinker, tailor, Dim-sum, Spy

This conflict has been bubbling away for years, but the last few months is where the argument erupted.

Back in 2012, a report was tabled by Congressman Mike Rogers which initially investigated the threat posed by Chinese technology firms in general, and Huawei specifically. The report did not produce any concrete evidence, though it suggested what many people were thinking; China is a threat to Western governments and its government is using internationally successful companies to extend the eyes of its intelligence community.

This report has been used several times over the last 12 months to justify increasingly aggressive moves against China and its technology vendors. During the same period, President Trump also blocked Broadcom’s attempts to acquire Qualcomm on the grounds of national security, tariffs were imposed, ZTE was banned from using US technologies in its supply chain and Huawei’s CFO was arrested in Canada on the grounds of fraud. With each passing month of 2018, the trade war was being cranked up to a new level.

Part of the strategy now seems to be undermining China’s credibility around the world, promoting a campaign of suggestion. There is yet to be any evidence produced confirming the Chinese espionage accusations but that hasn’t stopped several nations snubbing Chinese vendors. The US was of course the first to block Huawei and ZTE from the 5G bonanza, but Australia and Japan followed. New Zealand seems to be heading the same way, while South Korean telcos decided against including the Chinese vendors on preferred supplier lists.

The bigger picture is the US’ efforts to hold onto its dominance in the technology arena. This has proved to be incredibly fruitful for the US economy, though China is threatening the vice-like grip Silicon Valley has on the world. The US has been trying to convince the world not to use Chinese vendors on the grounds of national security, but don’t be fooled by this rhetoric; this is just one component of a greater battle against China.

Breakaway pack cross the 5G finish line

We made it!

Aside from 5G, we’ve been talking about very little over the last few years. There might have been a few side conversations which dominate the headlines for a couple of weeks, but we’ve never been far away from another 5G ‘breakthrough’ or ‘first’. And the last few weeks of 2018 saw a few of the leading telcos cross the 5G finish line.

Verizon was first with a fixed wireless access proposition, AT&T soon followed in the US with a portable 5G hotspot. Telia has been making some promising moves in both Sweden and Estonia, with limited launches aiming to create innovation and research labs, while San Marino was the first state to have complete coverage, albeit San Marino is a very small nation.

These are of course very minor launches, with geographical coverage incredibly limited, but that should not take the shine off the achievement. This is a moment the telco and technology industry has been building towards for years, and it has now been achieved.

Now we can move onto the why. Everyone knows 5G will be incredibly important for relieving the pressure on the telco pipes and the creation of new services, but no-one knows what these new services will be. We can all make educated guesses, but the innovators and blue-sky thinkers will come up with some new ideas which will revolutionise society and the economy.

Only a few people could have conceived Uber as an idea before the 4G economy was in full flow, and we can’t wait to see what smarter-than-us people come up with once they have the right tools and environment.

Zuckerberg proves he’s not a good friend after all

This is the news story which rocked the world. Data privacy violations, international actors influencing US elections, cover ups, fines, special committees, empty chairs, silly questions, knowledge of wrong-doing and this is only what we know so far… the scandal probably goes deeper.

It all started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a Russian American researcher called Aleksandr Kogan from the University of Cambridge. Kogan created a quiz on the Facebook platform which exposed a loop-hole in the platform’s policies allowing Kogan to scrape data not only from those who took the quiz, but also connections of that user. The result was a database containing information on 87 million people. This data was used by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during elections around the world, creating hyper-targeted adverts.

What followed was a circus. Facebook executives were hauled in-front of political special committees to answer questions. As weeks turned into months, more suspect practices emerged as politicians, journalists and busy-bodies probed deeper into the Facebook business model. Memos and internal emails have emerged suggesting executives knew they were potentially acting irresponsibly and unethically, but it didn’t seem to matter.

As it stands, Facebook is looking like a company which violated the trust of the consumer, has a much wider reaching influence than it would like to admit, and this is only the beginning. The only people who genuinely understand the expanding reach of Facebook are those who work for the company, but the curtain is slowly being pulled back on the data machine. And it is scaring people.

Big Blue back in the black

This might not have been a massive story for everyone in the industry, but with the severe fall from grace and rise back into the realms of relevance, we feel IBM deserves a mention.

Those who feature in the older generations will remember the dominance of IBM. It might seem unusual to say nowadays, but Big Blue was as dominant in the 70s as Microsoft was in the 90s and Google is today. This was a company which led the technology revolution and defined innovation. But it was not to be forever.

IBM missed a trick; personal computing. The idea that every home would have a PC was inconceivable to IBM, who had carved its dominant position through enterprise IT, but it made a bad choice. This tidal wave of cash which democratised computing for the masses went elsewhere, and IBM was left with its legacy business unit.

This was not a bad thing for years, as the cash cow continued to grow, but a lack of ambition in seeking new revenues soon took its toll. Eight years ago, IBM posted a decline in quarterly revenues and the trend continued for 23 consecutive periods. During this period cash was directed into a new division, the ‘strategic imperatives’ unit, which was intended to capitalise on a newly founded segment; intelligent computing.

In January this year, IBM proudly posted its first quarterly growth figures for seven years. Big Blue might not be the towering force it was decades ago, but it is heading in the right direction, with cloud computing and artificial intelligence as the key cogs.

Convergence, convergence, convergence

Convergence is one of those buzzwords which has been on the lips of every telco for a long time, but few have been able to realise the benefits.

There are a few glimmers of promise, Vodafone seem to be making promising moves in the UK broadband market, while Now TV offers an excellent converged proposition. On the other side of the Atlantic, AT&T efforts to move into the content world with the Time Warner acquisition is a puzzling one, while Verizon’s purchase of Yahoo’s content assets have proved to be nothing but a disaster.

Orange is a company which is taking convergence to the next level. We’re not just talking about connectivity either, how about IOT, cyber-security, banking or energy services. This is a company which is living the convergence dream. Tie as many services into the same organisation, making the bill payer so dependent on one company it becomes a nightmare to leave.

It’s the convergence dream as a reality.

Europe’s Great Tax Raid

This is one of the more recent events on the list, and while it might not be massive news now, we feel it justifies inclusion. This developing conversation could prove to be one of the biggest stories of 2019 not only because governments are tackling the nefarious accounting activities of Silicon Valley, but there could also be political consequences if the White House feels it is being victimised.

Tax havens are nothing new, but the extent which Silicon Valley is making use of them is unprecedented. Europe has had enough of the internet giants making a mockery of the bloc, not paying its fair share back to the state, and moves are being made by the individual states to make sure these monstrously profitable companies are held accountable.

The initial idea was a European-wide tax agenda which would be led by the European Commission. It would impose a sales tax on all revenues realised in the individual states. As ideas go, this is a good one. The internet giants will find it much more difficult to hide user’s IP addresses than shifting profits around. Unfortunately, the power of the European Union is also its downfall; for any meaningful changes to be implemented all 28 (soon to be 27) states would have to agree. And they don’t.

Certain states, Ireland, Sweden and Luxembourg, have a lot more to lose than other nations have to gain. These are economies which are built on the idea of buddying up to the internet economy. They might not pay much tax in these countries, but the presence of massive offices ensure society benefits through other means. Taxing Silicon Valley puts these beneficial relationships with the internet players in jeopardy.

But that isn’t good enough for the likes of the UK and France. In the absence of any pan-European regulations, these states are planning to move ahead with their own national tax regimes; France’s 3% sales tax on any revenues achieved in the country will kick into action on January 1, with the UK not far behind.

What makes this story much more interesting will be the influence of the White House. The US government might feel this is an attack on the prosperous US economy. There might be counter measures taken against the European Union. And when we say might, we suspect this is almost a certainty, such is the ego of President Donald Trump.

This is a story which will only grow over the next couple of months, and it could certainly cause friction on both sides of the Atlantic.

Que the moans… GDPR

GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation. It was a pain for almost everyone involved and simply has to be discussed because of this distress.

Introduced in May, it seemingly came as a surprise. This is of course after companies were given 18 months to prepare for its implementation, but few seemed to appreciate the complexity of becoming, and remaining compliant. As a piece of regulation, it was much needed for the digital era. It heightened protections for the consumer and ensured companies operating in the digital economy acted more responsibly.

Perhaps one of the most important components of the regulation was the stick handed to regulators. With technology companies growing so rapidly over the last couple of years, the fines being handed out by watchdogs were no longer suitable. Instead of defining specific amounts, the new rules allow punishments to be dished out as a percentage of revenues. This allows regulators to hold the internet giants accountable, hitting them with a suitably large stick.

Change is always difficult, but it is necessary to ensure regulations are built for the era. Evolving the current rulebook simply wouldn’t work, such is the staggering advancement of technology in recent years. Despite the headaches which were experienced throughout the process, it was necessary, and we’ll be better off in the long-run.

Next on the regulatory agenda, the ePrivacy Regulation.

Jio piles the misery on competitors

Jio is not a new business anymore, neither did it really come to being in 2018, but this was the period where the telco really justified the hype and competitors felt the pinch.

After hitting the market properly in early 2016, the firm made an impression. But like every challenger brand, the wins were small in context. Collecting 100,000s of customers every month is very impressive, but don’t forget India has a population of 1.3 billion and some very firmly position incumbents.

2017 was another year where the firm rose to prominence, forcing several other telcos out of the market and two of the largest players into a merger to combat the threat. Jio changed the market in 2017; it democratised connectivity in a country which had promised a lot but delivered little.

This year was the sweeping dominance however. It might not be the number one telco in the market share rankings, but it will be before too long. Looking at the most recent subscription figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Jio grew its subscription base by 13.02 million, but more importantly, it was the only telco which was in the positive. This has started to make an impact on the financial reports across the industry, Bharti Airtel is particularly under threat, and there might be worse to come.

For a long-time Jio has been hinting it wants to tackle the under-performing fixed broadband market. There have been a couple of acquisitions in recent months, Den Networks and Hathway Cable, which give it an entry point, and numerous other digital services initiatives to diversify the revenue streams.

The new business units are not making much money at the moment, though Jio is in the strongest position to test out the convergence waters in India. Offering a single revenue stream will ensure the financials hit a glass ceiling in the near future, but new products and aggressive infrastructure investment plans promise much more here.

We’re not too sure whether the Indian market is ready for mass market fixed broadband penetration, there are numerous other market factors involved, but many said the initial Jio battle plan would fail as well.

Convergent business models are certainly an interesting trend in the industry, and Jio is looking like it could force the Indian market into line.

Redundancies, redundancies, redundancies

Redundancy is a difficult topic to address, but it is one we cannot ignore. Despite what everyone promises, there will be more redundancies.

Looking at the typical telco business model, this is the were the majority have been seen and will continue to be seen. To survive in the digitally orientated world, telcos need to adapt. Sometimes this means re-training staff to capitalise on the new bounties, but unfortunately this doesn’t always work. Some can’t be retrained, some won’t want to; the only result here will be redundancies.

BT has been cutting jobs, including a 13,000-strong cull announced earlier this year, Deutsche Telekom is trimming its IT services business by 25%, the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint will certainly create overlaps and resulting redundancies, while Optus has been blaming automation for its own cuts.

Alongside the evolving landscape, automation is another area which will result in a headcount reduction. The telcos will tell you AI is only there to supplement human capabilities and allow staff to focus on higher value tasks, but don’t be fooled. There will be value-add gains, but there will also be accountants looking to save money on the spreadsheets. If you can buy software to do a simple job, why would you hire a couple of people to do it? We are the most expensive output for any business.

Unfortunately, we have to be honest with ourselves. For the telco to compete in the digital era, new skills and new business models are needed. This means new people, new approaches to software and new internal processes. Adaptation and evolution is never easy and often cruel to those who are not qualified. This trend has been witnessed in previous industrial revolutions, but the pace of change today means it will be felt more acutely.

Redundancy is not a nice topic, but it is not always avoidable.

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.

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!