In many ways it is a shame that the most likely reason for a technology company to hit the headlines in national newspapers and on TV is because they don’t pay enough taxes.
For all the largely justified criticism of Google’s £130m tax settlement with the UK government, surely most people in the technology community would rather be reading about the great innovations from Google et al, and how they are changing the way we live and work for the better (mostly).
But the tax argument is nonetheless one that demonstrates the scope of the technological disruption facing society and how the digital revolution will force governments, companies and individuals to re-evaluate many of the old norms we have taken for granted.
At its heart, the Google tax debate rests on an accounting principle, not a technical one – the ability for country subsidiaries of a multinational corporation to charge for services between those subsidiaries in order to shift the point of profit to a lower-tax regime. It surely can’t be beyond law makers to legislate to restrict those internal transfer fees so that profits are more accurately recorded at the point of consumption for goods and services, not of delivery.
But until technology made it so easy to split consumption and delivery of digital services, it was barely an issue.
When Apple launched the mobile app era in 2008, who could have predicted that one outcome just eight years later would be French taxi drivers on strike and burning tyres on a Paris ring road because a piece of software – Uber – is threatening their livelihoods?
For all the excitement about the great innovations we are using and those yet to be created, it’s almost impossible to predict the true social and business impact they will have – only that there will be huge upheavals as we absorb these new capabilities into our lives.
We hear plenty of scaremongering about the potential effects of robots and artificial intelligence, but think too about more mundane developments like the internet of things and how that could empower individuals like never before with information about the world around them.
Governments and legislators will always react too slowly even with so much evidence of the pace of digitally inspired social change in front of them. There are digital King Canutes everywhere – but a disturbing concentration of them among our leaders, even as they hope for the glory by association that comes from close involvement with digital innovators – look at David Cameron and George Osborne’s very public fondness for Google.
The only certainty is that taxation will not be the only social tenet that is challenged by technological change in the years ahead. As a society, we need to be prepared for further upheavals that few are likely to predict.