‘Day of reckoning’ looms for State relationship with tech giants

Multinationals ‘more dangerous to society than we guessed’, says John Naughton

The State is in for “a day of reckoning” over its decision to continually bend over backwards to accommodate technology giants, a leading tech commentator has said.

John Naughton, a respected academic, journalist and author, said there were likely to be huge repercussions "for having based economic policy on being friendly to foreign corporations".

"We are the enthusiastic hosts of a number of giant corporations, at least two of which are likely to turn out to be very bad eggs," Mr Naughton told The Irish Times ahead of his appearance at the Ireland's Edge conference in Ballina, Co Mayo, this weekend.

He said that, as the tide continues to turn against leading tech companies over issues such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, that questions would increasingly be asked about where the State stands on topics such as data privacy and protection.


“Ireland as a society has to have a story. Is it happy to continue to be the awestruck welcoming state for these giants or not?” said Mr Naughton.

A senior research fellow in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at Cambridge University, and a professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, Mr Naughton is also a technology columnist with the Observer newspaper in Britain.

Established policy

He said that Irish economic policy as outlined by TK Whitaker and implemented by then taoiseach Sean Lemass in the late 1950s, centred around making the Republic a modern country by being friendly to big multinationals. He added that current policy differed little from the original plan and, while successful in drawing in foreign direct investment, had also led to problems.

“The whole strategic drive of the Irish State since 1958 is to be awfully nice and bend over backwards to these giants,” said Mr Naughton, who comes from Ballina.

"As a policy it has been well-implemented by IDA Ireland but you have to be careful what you wish for because you end up with American internet giants deciding to base themselves in Dublin, but the difficulty with this is that some of these companies have turned out to be more dangerous to society than we might have guessed," he added.

‘Understaffed regulator’

Mr Naughton said the burden being placed on the Irish Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon as the lead regulator in the European Union was "a clear sign of chickens coming home to roost".

He said it was “very striking” that an “understaffed regulator” had responsibility for regulating huge and “in some cases, malevolent” companies.

Mr Naughton, who said that his impression of the Irish technology scene was that it was "highly uncritical and relentlessly upbeat", added that the State's unwillingness to collect the €13 billion owed to it by Apple, following a recent EU judgment, also showed the Government's fears of going against big tech companies.

“Ireland could be characterised as a small economy that made a very big bet and put a lot of its aspirations into one basket. The payoff has been great but what’s happening is that technology corporations are in for a much rougher time and the State has to decide where it stands,” he said

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist