The Times CEO Summit was kicked off with the News Corp CEO effectively blasting Google and Facebook for ducking their responsibilities as publishers. The mainstream press has been lamenting for quite some time now that if they hogged the lion's share of digital advertising and yet just shrugged when that advertising was running alongside hate speech and extremism, they would be hung out to dry. If they sat by and allowed so many robotic accounts to spray out fake news, they would be laughed at.
For the social media giants, there seems to be no regulator other than the court of public opinion, and more importantly, advertiser boycotts that bring the message home. Yet still they go from strength to strength unchallenged by anything other than the occasional harsh headline or boycott that doesn't even start to put a dent in profits.
Today's debates about whether Google has been picked on or got what it deserved with yesterday's GBP2.1bn fine are a case in point. Anyone connected with the Internet industry, any brand, any advertiser or agency will have felt empathy for the EU protecting the businesses that have been unfairly squeezed out by Google's favouring of its own services, particularly around shopping. Of course, we have the Adam Smith Institute telling the BBC that if you don't like it, you can always switch to Bing, but that brings us to another Google case -- Android phones coming preloaded with Chrome and set to search on Google.
The search giant was always going to be skating on thin ice when it started selling stuff rather than just listing merchants. Opening up new boxes that only Google services can access is as clear an abuse of monopolistic power as you're going to get. The fact that people aren't really all that bothered, and certainly not bothered enough to download the Bing app, doesn't make it any less of a misdemeanour.
Would it be a good time to remind ourselves that Facebook just put a nanonsecond's worth of profit into paying off the EU for a blatant lie? It was given the go-ahead to buy Whatsapp on the basis that customer data wouldn't be shared between the two service. It was. The result? A 100m Euro fine that Facebook would have have thought a price worth paying for allowing a multibillion-dollar merger go-ahead. For the sake of such a valuable fib, who wouldn't be prepared to say sorry with such a relatively low fine?
You see, it's hard to get away from the feeling that for Facebook and Google, paying fines is an acceptable way of conducting business that accepts none of the responsibilities and obligations or conventional media. It's only when a public outcry occurs or a government threatens action and further fines that, for example, the giants agree to vet their content a little more closely.
The point is, these guys pay such tiny rates of tax -- most studies put them at about 1% in the UK -- it can't even be argued that the massive profits they amass are for any public good.
The UK's Prime Minister has come in for a lot of criticism -- some founded, some not -- but one thing she has vowed is a Digital Charter that will lay out what it takes to do digital business in the UK. Part of this looks set to be standards over what is allowed to be published and how soon a tech giant must remove offending material. But let's not forget the levy she's promising. It's being put down as paying for improved education around social media issue. To all extents and purposes, however, it looks like a tax by any other name.
If you want to know how digital businesses are feeling in the UK right now -- particularly publishers and advertisers -- it's that the pendulum has swung too far in the favour of giants who ignore rules, have accountants who can avoid way too much tax by pretending the money is being earned somewhere else (Dublin, you know who you are) and who have so much money in the bank, not even massive fines are much of a put off.
The Digital Charter and accompanying levy in the UK might just begin to redress the imbalance.