My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for introducing this timely and important debate. However, I feel such a hypocrite. I live on many screens: I tweet and I follow, and I delight in Amazon—no more trips to the shops. As for Google, where would I be without it? The only major social media I do not use is Facebook—there I draw the line. Truth be told, I love the products that these companies provide, and yet I am so critical of these very same companies. Yesterday in your Lordships’ House I spoke about protecting public data assets from big tech. Today, I want to speak about big tech’s lack of corporate and social responsibility.
The fact is that these companies—Apple, Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook—have become the colossuses of our 21st-century world. They stand astride our economies and our social interchanges. Their corporate power is, quite frankly, scary, and the influence of their products on society can be devastating—just look at the recent US elections. It was Google that coined the phrase, “Do no evil”, a mantra that could just as well be applied to any of the other participants. They believe that they exist for the benefit of mankind. My view is different. I am truly worried by the power these companies wield, but before I turn to social media, I should like to address the related issue of their universal obsession in avoiding paying tax.
Why is it that I talk about tax avoidance in a social media debate? Because big tech companies are driven not to pay tax, with the same fervour as they are driven not to take responsibility for the content that appears on their platforms. The same organisations that employ the brightest people in the world to design their products, enhance their systems and create their algorithms also employ the cleverest people on this planet to ensure that they pay little or no tax. Billions, perhaps even trillions, of dollars of untaxed corporate profits are squirrelled away in Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and the like—the result of convoluted international structures set up with one purpose only. Maybe their mantra should be modified: “Do no evil, pay no taxes”.
This afternoon’s debate centres on the responsibilities of the social media companies, whether such companies are platforms or publishers, and how they should be regulated. For too long, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have positioned themselves as platforms—conduits of data with no responsibility for their content. These days, few believe that. We continue to be shocked by the vile words and images that the world is able to access on these platforms. No newspaper, however extreme it may be, would ever dare publish the lies and images that we see on social media, but even now little is done to control these companies.
I am certain of one thing: if the social media companies and big tech really wanted to clean up their act, they could do it. The genius that created these amazing organisations and the accumulation of talent and resource that they now have at their hands is unparalleled in history. All of this could be harnessed to clean out their stables. They could become good corporate citizens. All they need is the will, or perhaps the legislative imperative, for without laws, it is clear that anything goes.