What have US tech giants ever done for us?

Caveat: The Double Irish reinforced the global stereotype of us as whiskey-swilling loons

“Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Seriously, who can look at Dáil politics without thinking of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front?

“Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Seriously, who can look at Dáil politics without thinking of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front?

 

Ah, Christmas. The season of goodwill, merriment and watching movies while draped across the couch, simmering in the fruits of your seasonal excess. Do it for long enough, and you can become a veritable confit of human. The joy.

My favourite at this time of year is the riotous satirical masterpiece Monty Python’s Life of Brian, about a man born next door to Jesus on Christmas Day who gets mistaken for the Messiah. Who can look at Dáil politics without thinking of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front?

I also often think of it when observing the messianic culture of the Silicon Valley giants who chose Ireland for their international headquarters, and the public hammering they get from what they must view as ungrateful natives. The three biggest tech leviathans are rarely out of the news here due to their tax-avoiding exploits – read the business pages from any day over the past week.

To mangle John Cleese’s on-screen denunciation of the blasted Romans, what have Google, Facebook and Apple ever done for us?

Okay, okay, the jobs. The big three employ close to 15,000 here, many in well-paid, sophisticated positions. Apple, with its 6,000, employs 2½ times as many in Cork as it does in all of Germany. There are rumours Facebook could double the near 2,000 it employs in Dublin. Google employs more than 6,000 in Dublin and has transformed an entire quarter of the city.

Then you must factor in the indirect jobs that exist on the back of this, and the multiplier effect of that spending and income taxes in the local economy.

And while they are Olympians when it comes to ducking corporate taxes, they still pay a fair chunk. Last year, Google paid €164 million, while Facebook paid €29.5 million. Only the Messiah knows what Apple paid, as it doesn’t file accounts.

Yet, despite all this, there is still a niggling notion that the Three Wise Ones extract more from us than we do from them. Maybe those who lambast Apple, Google and Facebook are not anti-Roman People’s Fronts, but rather Greek Cassandras, cursed never to be believed.

Booze-swilling loons

Look at the global reputational damage the State has suffered due to the tax-avoiding gymnastics of Apple, Google and Facebook. Internationally, Ireland is labelled a tax haven. The State is in legal conflict with the European Union. We’re a laughing stock for refusing to take €13 billion in back taxes. The Double Irish reinforced the global stereotype of us as booze-swilling loons.

It is our fault. We facilitated their dubious exploits in exchange for crumbs from the table. But how will the nation ever shake off this reputational stain? It will remain there long after these digital giants go elsewhere in search of new friends. Lest anyone doubt it, they make new friends when it suits them.

How conflicted must the people of Athenry feel about Apple, which planned an €850 million data centre there until it ran into planning trouble? Locals vociferously backed Apple every step of the way for more than two years, with marches and rallies.

And what did Apple do as soon as it got the green light? It abandoned them, instead committing its money to Denmark. Apple even made a fool of the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, leading him to state publicly that the company was committed to Athenry, when everybody knew it was already playing hygge with the Danes.

The web giants also place an intolerable strain on our data protection regime, with Ireland the de facto location for all non-US data protection actions against Facebook, Google and others whose international headquarters (and computer servers) are here.

Clogging up the courts

They’re also clogging up Irish courts. In 2017 alone, 10 actions, including international defamation cases, were filed against Google in the High Court. There were six against Facebook, including a recent case by Mohammed Dahlan, the war-hardened former security chief of the Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party.

Last year, our courts were also asked – in a case against Facebook – to uphold the reputation of Ismail Guelleh, the leader of Djibouti whose family has ruled it with an iron fist for 40 years. Does Ireland really need this?

And when it comes to political access, the tech giants leave indigenous companies in the ha’penny place. Google and Facebook have direct lines to the top “to brief policymakers and... to encourage policies to support” whatever is in their interests, according to lobbying register returns.

Facebook this year called 13 meetings with Irish legislators to press for legal changes on everything from privacy to web security. Google is the daddy of them all, reporting dozens of private meetings with officials and Ministers from the Taoiseach all the way down “to brief on [its] investment in Ireland”. That’s code for stating its leverage.

‘Data privacy’

In one three-month period, Google requested four meetings with Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Finance, to discuss “education... and data privacy”. What has he got to do with those issues? Are we expected to believe that tax policy wasn’t mentioned in meetings with the Minister for Finance? Apple met senior officials to request “ongoing dialogue.. on health policy”? What business is this of a smartphone maker?

Ireland has done well from Apple, Google and Facebook. But perhaps those three, in particular, need reminding that they have also done well from us. Policymakers should remember this the next time they throw themselves prone at the feet of the Silicon Valley messiahs.

FOOTNOTES

It seems 2017 was a good year for Teeling Whiskey, which sent us a seasonal reminder of the exploits of the company, based in Dublin’s south inner city.

Teeling is now apparently exporting the stuff to 60 international markets, including Belarus and Vietnam. The company sold 850,000 bottles and received 120,000 visitors to its distilling facility in Newmarket.

It was another stellar year for the Irish whiskey industry overall, with global sales of the brown stuff climbing ever higher. The spirit of Christmas is alive and well.

*******

Christmas is also a time for sending cards and greetings. Business people are generally polite folk, and corporate cards tend to be safe, inoffensive efforts.

The winner this year of the Corporate Christmas Card competition must be Red Flag, the lobbying and communications agency founded by former journalist and media executive Karl Brophy, and chaired by Gavin O’Reilly.

The front cover of the card is a photograph depicting the back of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s head, as he watches a missile launch (except it’s not a missile this time, it’s a Christmas tree).

“That cunning Red Flag plan might just work,” muses Little Rocket Man.

Inside, we see Kim and his minions laughing, as they watch a television screen image of Donald Trump, standing in front of the Christmas tree missile.

“Success! Those Red Flag folk are brilliant – send them some bitcoin,” says Kim, looking fierce delighted with himself altogether. Merry Christmas is in Korean.

On the back, the is an exhortation to “Make Christmas Great Again”.

I wonder did Brophy, whose firm is currently embroiled in a bitter legal battle with Denis O’Brien, send a card to Our Man in Malta?

Merry Christmas, everybody.

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