On Thursday (29th June) I attended a session at the University of Westminster Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) which looked to discuss various issues surrounding regulating the digital economy. They will be releasing a series of publications through Westminster University Press which coincide with the themes discussed, which I will look out for. Some of the speakers were particularly relevant to my interests so I will speak a bit more about two of them here. Following the panel the interesting discussions continued into the drinks reception, and I even remembered to bring my cards so I could give out contact details (this may be the first time this has happened).
Paul Morton from the Office of Tax Simplification spoke to us about issues with taxing the digital economy, including the important question of *where* the digital economy is located. It’s an ongoing and complex problem for people regulating the digital world. For example, where do you tax a customer who usually works in Italy, but is on secondment to Italy, and is on holiday in Hawaii when he downloads the data from the content provider? And likewise, where is the content producer? Different groups across the world work together online to produce content and products of all kind, so where do you allocate tax? Another interesting point was that pretty much every company is now in the digital economy in some way, even if just in the sense of using social media to advertise or having a website. Morton also gave us an interesting and quick history of taxation, focussing on the move from a permanent base for taxation to this complex picture. He ended with three more interesting questions:
- How do you tax information gathering?
- If a company sells services in a location where it has no people working, should it pay tax?
- If a company uses a company infrastructure to provide its’ service, for example the internet, education, etc, should it pay tax?
Personally, I find the issue of taxing the online and digital world very interesting, having worked with individual creators who essentially form a one-person business. These people do not have the same infrastructural support as larger businesses, particularly the larger online behemoths like Amazon and Google, who can afford people to work to understand and exploit the tax systems. In particular I was interested to talk about VAT-MOSS but we did not have time so I hope we will be able to do so in future.
Mercedes Bunz from CAMRI discussed algorithms, AI, and Robotic automation, which was interesting with my other hat on of working with UnBias. There have been more internet connected things than humans since 2008, which is a scary fact when online systems ‘enter the sphere of meaning and start making decisions’. The advent of machine learning has completely changed how algorithms work, by automating their creation through deep learning. This means we don’t know what rules are being learnt and used to make decisions, whereas in the past computer scientists had to manually input specific rules. Introducing human assistance into the system does allow for some adjustment, and as we know from working with young people it could increase levels of trust.
Other speakers included:
- Pieter Verdegem from CAMRI who discussed internet cooperative and platform capitalism, looking at what happens as platforms replace firms.
- Will Hayter from the Competition and Markets Authority who not only reminded me of my time with the Centre for Competition Policy at UEA but also pointed out that a lot of the problems of regulating the online world already exist offline, and I think this is an important thing to remember.
- Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group who spoke about how the digital world necessarily creates monopoly (if a service is being provided well, why bother getting someone else to do it?), and how digital monopolies are useful for governments in giving them someone to blame (if you blame a single company, you get instant results by bullying that company, and also take the focus away from the government).
It’s certainly given me plenty to think about!