The European Union: Give them an inch and they’ll take a kilometer.
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The EU has targeted America’s top tech companies with one controversial ruling after another, on every issue from privacy rights and unfair competition to hate speech and tax evasion. Each time they get away with it, the wacky bureaucrats (my description) in Brussels become more emboldened than the last.
With Tuesday’s unprecedented $14.5 billion levy against Apple, the commission has officially left the realm of reality and landed in crazy town.
Even though Apple has been operating lawfully in Ireland and dutifully paying its taxes for more than 35 years, the EU’s antitrust regulator has unilaterally determined that the tech giant should pay more – a lot more – for taxes it says Apple should owe Ireland from the past decade.
Under a bizarre antitrust rule that is supposed to keep member nations from cutting special deals that give one company a competitive advantage over another, the commission “concluded that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple.” The funny thing is, Ireland says that’s nonsense and Apple doesn’t owe it a penny in back taxes.
Apple agrees. According to a statement from CEO Tim Cook, “The European Commission has launched an effort to rewrite Apple’s history in Europe, ignore Ireland’s tax laws and upend the international tax system in the process.” He said the claim “has no basis in fact or in law,” rather the commission is retroactively imposing its own view of what the law should have been.
We’re witnessing the birth of a new kind of government bureaucracy that just wants to make up the rules as it goes.
You’d think Britain’s historic Brexit vote might have been a wakeup call that maybe, just maybe, Brussels has been overstepping its authority and riding herd over member nations, but that does not appear to be the case. Rather, it looks like the commission is just getting started. And it’s going after Silicon Valley with pen and paper in hand.
In 2014, the EU’s highest court ruled that people and events have the right to be forgotten. Individuals could now demand that Google and others remove certain links from search results, even if they refer to content that accurately and lawfully represents events that occurred.
Granted, the content itself remains, but without search engine links to its location, for all practical purposes, it may as well cease to exist. For example, politicians, executives and others found guilty of a crime could ask to have links to articles or legal filings deleted from Google’s European search results. And Google would be forced to comply.
While some viewed the landmark decision as a victory of an individual’s privacy rights over the public’s right to know, others saw it as the first step toward dismantling the historic freedom of information and integrity of the internet. And I see it as a start down the slippery slope from a free society to a censored one.
Meanwhile, the EU’s antitrust commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has taken aim at Google, Amazon, Facebook and other U.S. giants, including Apple-style tax grabs against Starbucks, McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Fiat Chrysler.
In May, the EU somehow managed to induce Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube to agree to delete what it calls “illegal, online hate speech” from their sites within 24 hours of being notified. Keep in mind that there is no such distinction between hate speech and free speech in the U.S.
The commission’s “Code of Conduct” defines criminal online content as that which “promotes incitement to violence and hateful conduct directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.”
In case you’re wondering who gets to decide what constitutes promoting “incitement to violence” and “hateful conduct,” I’ll give you one guess. That’s right, the commission, in all its subjective wisdom. As for why the EU wants to eradicate hate speech, they think that racism and xenophobia cause terrorism. They think terrorist attacks like those in Paris and Brussels were caused by hate speech on social media. See what I mean? Crazy town.
As for why the commission is going after tech giants, some call it a blatant money grab while others say this is what happens when the disruptors meet the disrupted. I’m sure both are true, but I see it as a case of bureaucrats seeing successful entrepreneurs as the enemy. And their only weapons are legislation, regulation and taxation.
Is it any wonder that the U.S. and Asia dominate the tech world? The EU is shooting itself and its member nations in the foot.
Maybe something good will come of this and our own political leaders will finally get up off their collective behinds, fix the tax code, and entice corporate America to repatriate the $2.1 trillion they have parked overseas and quit doing tax inversion deals. Wait, what am I saying? That’s just crazy talk.