Will Brexit Britain be able to tax tech giants if the EU does? – Catherine Stihler

Brexit will mean the UK loses its seat at the EU table just as it prepares to make globally important decisions about the Internet Age, on issues such as taxing tech giants like Google and Facebook, writes Catherine Stihler.

Mark Zuckerberg has faced criticism about Facebooks policies on free speech and fake news (Picture: Andrew Harnik/AP, file)
Mark Zuckerberg has faced criticism about Facebooks policies on free speech and fake news (Picture: Andrew Harnik/AP, file)

Every day, the UK political agenda is dominated by Brexit. There is little room for discussion about any other policy areas.

But there is a misconception that European politics is focussed on Brexit in the same way that British politics is.

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More than three years after the EU referendum, there is intense weariness in Brussels that the saga is dragging on. The institutions of the EU are instead getting on with shaping the continent’s future for the five-year parliamentary term that has just started.

Facebook is a major social media force, but the global success of it and a small number of other tech giants has raised huge questions about the future of society (Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire)

In European politics, questions around openness, transparency and public information will be fiercely debated over this next parliament.

The world is looking to Europe to lead the way on issues like copyright, data use and privacy – and the hope is that a path can be forged which is more open, fair and inclusive.

MEPs have already elected Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, and she will take up her post on November 1. They are currently examining the competencies and abilities of her proposed team of commissioners.

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The 26 people selected will decide the EU’s future for the next five years, and this is what MEPs are focussing on: not Brexit. In the last term, there were 27 individuals, plus the president, but the UK has decided to sit this one out.

As a result, we’re missing out on playing a role in the discussions and debates that will shape policies affecting 500 million people. That means we’re not involved in the design of a European Green Deal, which aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent.

Or the new dedicated strategy for small and medium-sized companies that will reduce red tape and improve access for business to the European market.

Or proposals for gender quotas on company boards, a new European plan to fight cancer, and a renewed fight against tax fraud.

Taxing Google, Facebook and co

At the Open Knowledge Foundation, our vision is for a fair, free and open future. Over the coming years, one of the greatest challenges facing Europe is how to grasp the opportunities of the digital age.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming society at a rapid rate, and we must ensure that nobody is left behind by these technological advances.

For the EU, the next few years will see the prioritisation of joint standards for 5G networks, defining new standards for high-performance computing and data usage, discussion on the human and ethical implications of AI, and proposals for a Digital Services Act for digital platforms.

The UK has lost its seat at the top table while these vital issues are discussed, but in this interconnected age, the decisions will still have a major impact here at home.

The EU plans to introduce a tax on digital services if the rest of the world can’t agree on a way forward by the end of 2020.

These taxes are designed to target large tech monopolies like Google and Facebook, amid ongoing concerns about the amount of tax paid by large corporations.

But piecemeal action by countries such as the UK, in the face of US opposition, will allow countries to be picked off one-by-one, which is why the only solution is international action.

During the last European parliamentary term, when I was an MEP for Scotland, much of my work was focused on proposed EU-wide copyright changes.

Five million Europeans strongly opposed the changes but, despite protests, they were voted through by the EU Council in April 2019 with member states given two years to implement the changes.

Six countries voting against: Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Sweden. Poland has launched a legal challenge and this issue is likely to be a major subject for the new crop of MEPs, and the battle is not over.

Threat to free speech

My organisation continues to fight against these proposals which we feel will have a far-reaching and negative impact on freedom of speech and expression online by introducing blunt content filters on sites such as YouTube which could stifle the sharing of knowledge.

Meanwhile, the unfolding fragmentation of copyright law and clampdown on rights across Europe risks cementing the primacy of services provided by the American tech giants on the continent.

Last month, Google showed just how easily it could undermine a separate part of the new copyright regulations by announcing it will remove news snippets from Google and Google News for French news publications at the end of October 2019.

So just as Facebook and YouTube announce that they will not hold politicians using their platforms to the same community guidelines as everyone else due to public interest in what they have to say, they are preparing to demote news across the continent which holds politicians to account for what they say.

Crucial decisions taken in the next few years – especially at the EU level – have the potential to fundamentally change our societies.

We live in a knowledge society where we face two different futures: one which is open and one which is closed. A closed future is one where knowledge is exclusively owned and controlled leading to greater inequality and a closed society.

But an open future means knowledge is shared by all – freely available to everyone, a world where people are able to fulfil their potential and live happy and healthy lives.

That is the future we should choose.

Catherine Stihler is chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation