Who knows what took them so long, maybe it was their deeply-rooted ideological commitment to slashing corporation tax, maybe it was the colossal lobbying power of these tech monoliths, or maybe it was simply the fact that supporters and members of the Conservative Party have a mean age of 142 so were succumbed by technophobia. Alas, in last week’s budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond proposed a long-overdue new ‘digital services tax’ designed to clamp down on tax-avoiding tech giants. In a budget where fixing potholes was allocated £20 million more funding than education, this was genuinely worthy of some kind of praise. However, although it’s a good start, we have to go much further to address the problems these ever-powerful tech platforms pose.
After years of calls to clamp down on the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon, the new tax will see U.S.-based tech companies with annual profits exceeding £500 million forced to pay a levy of 2 percent of U.K. revenues. I bet they’re shaking in their boots, right? Well, not really. It turns out that this is only likely to generate around £400 million per year which is nothing considering a recent report by Tax Watch estimated that the top five tech multinationals (Google, Apple, Cisco, Microsoft and Facebook) should be paying somewhere around £1.3 billion more than the £191 million they contributed last year.
It’s clear that in terms of tax avoidance this is only a small step on a very long journey, however the most urgent threat we’re faced with goes much deeper than taxing revenues appropriately. Rather, the real danger lies in the colossal social, economic and political power these few tech companies hold and exploit for financial gain. Where economic power was once defined in relation to who controlled the means of production, now it is framed around the ownership of information and by leaving them to their own devices free from political intervention this ownership has been concentrated into a handful of monopolistic tech platforms who now oversee the entire digital infrastructure that shapes our society. The repercussions of this are felt day-by-day and it’s clear that this system is not a sustainable one so now we urgently have to figure out what comes next, and that goes much further than simply taxing these platforms more.
Looking at where we go from here isn’t exactly new terrain, in fact, there’s a wealth of work out there looking at how we can better shape our technology-driven world. Back in September the left-wing think-tank IPPR released a report titled The Digital Commonwealth which takes aim at ‘universal platforms’ such as Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook—i.e. those that have accumulated the most data, the most advanced analytical capabilities and have the greatest ownership over the structures of the digital economy. The IPPR report proposes a number of policy measures to bring the digital infrastructures that these platforms have total control over into the public domain for the ‘collective benefit’ of society. Their argument is very much one of increased regulation, public ownership and forcing these major platforms to free up their data for uses deemed to be in the public interest.
There are much more radical alternatives out there too: ranging from the left-accelerationist arguments revitalised by the likes of Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and the Laboria Cuboniks collective, to Paul Mason’s vision of a ‘postcapitalist’ future and the demands of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, mostly propagated by Aaron Bastani and the rest of the Novara Media lot. All of which, in some capacity, see automation and technological advancement as something which can in fact be emancipatory, if we’d only let it; offering utopian glimmers of post-work societies free from capitalist exploitation.
We may have a long way to go but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have an imagination. Simply taxing tech companies a tiny bit more may do little to address the deeper problems plaguing us at this moment in time. But even if it has marked a slight shift in changing attitudes to technology’s role in our society, then our job now is to keep building on that and continue to demand greater, more-radical changes. You’ve got to start somewhere, I suppose.
It’s now official. Facebook will launch a global, digitally-native cryptocurrency in mid-2020. In awhite paper published by the social-media giant earlier this week, Facebook introduces its future digital currency, Libra, as an easy-to-use replacement for cash, which it claims will grant access to financial services for people across the globe (particularly to the 1.7 billion ones who do not have a bank account). Yet, alongside promise and entrepreneurial zeal, the impending interference of the company in the world banking system evokes a great deal of doubt and concern.
You gotta give it to Facebook. Venturing to develop a monetary system that will replace cash is a massive undertaking, particularly since it involves exploring largely uncharted territory. With cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin failing to gain the trust of the masses and others like Q simply disappearing into the ether, it would take an enormous amount of creativity, financial acumen, and technological ingenuity to formulate a system that would seem appealing for investors to back and people to contemplate as legitimate. And that’s precisely what Facebook has managed to do, long before the actual launching of its product.
Libra is being developed as a blockchain-powered cryptocurrency. Unlike other digitally-native currencies, however, Libra will be fully-backed by a reserve of real assets, which will be locally regulated in each country. Each Libra issued will be backed by a currency or asset stored in the Libra Reserve in order to ensure the cryptocurrency’s stability and guarantee its intrinsic value. Facebook announced that Libra could be exchanged by anyone who has an iPhone and an Android at rates approximately ten-times lower than it costs to wire money electronically or internationally through the regular banking system. The company predicts that this will enable people in developing countries to obtain financial security and access services that currently are not available to them.
While the initial intent for Libra is to serve primarily as a money transferring tool, Facebook’s ultimate goal is to turn it into a mainstream currency, used to make every-day purchases and even serve as a loan and credit system.
Libra’s most unique characteristic, however, is the decentralisation of its governing body. Although Facebook is the one developing the currency, the company claims it has no intention to control it. To that end, it established the independent nonprofit Libra Association, presently comprised of 27 partners entrusted with monitoring the development and management of Libra. Among the members are major financial and technological corporations and service providers, including Mastercard, Visa, eBay, PayPal, Spotify, Uber, and Lyft, as well as nonprofit organizations, such as Mercy Corps.
So how does Facebook fit into this global financial ecosystem? The answer is simple: through its subsidiary—Calibra, a Switzerland-based company tasked with developing, launching, and bringing Libra to the masses. Calibra intends to do so by developing a digital wallet designated to send, receive, and use the Libra currency. Calibra will be implanted into Facebook-owed platforms such as Messenger and WhatsApp, and eventually launch a standalone Calibra app. Calibra (AKA Facebook) will, at least initially, possess one seat on the Libra Association board panel.
While Calibra will be the world’s first introduction to Libra, the company stated it will welcome any competition by another group seeking to establish a platform to exchange in Libra, and avoid any aspirations to monopolise the cryptocurrencies. In an interview for The Verge, Calibra Vice President of Product Kevin Weil stated, “Calibra can only be successful when the Libra ecosystem is successful.”
As great as this utopian virtual ecosystem appears, it also raises several red flags. One of the greatest risks about the Calibra enterprise is fraud and identity theft. And while Facebook vows to install the strictest technologies to ensure the safety of both users and the financial system as a whole, it remains to be seen whether it can keep this promise. This could particularly be an issue in countries where government-issued identification is unavailable or easy to forge.
In the U.S., numerous lawmakers and politicians have expressed grave concerns about the prospect of allowing a company notorious for data leaks and mismanagement to spearhead a global market revolution. The Senate Banking Committee has therefore announced this week that it will hold a hearing to examine Facebook’s cryptocurrency proposal on July 16.
Yet the most troubling aspect about the whole Libra/Calibra initiative is that we still don’t know how Facebook stands to gain from it. Currently, the company has only one vote on the multi-member board, and has declared in its white paper that data from Calibra will not be shared with other Facebook apps or platforms for ad-targeting purposes. It also stated that the very minimal fees Calibra will charge per-transfer will only be used to maintain the network’s security system. And so, we know there is money to be made—otherwise why would leviathans such as Visa and Mastercard be down to join the party—we just don’t know where exactly it will be coming from.
As the scandal surrounding Facebook churns, and calls to break up the company intensify, the social media network volunteers to introduce a brand-new global market, which it will supposedly not dominate, for no other purpose than to facilitate the transfer of money and welcome the world’s most underprivileged into this virtual financial oasis. In a world where Zuckerberg is, ultimately, only about Zuckerberg, one must ask: where is the catch?