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Social Affairs: In defence of Social Media, Amazon and the Rest

Much has been made recently of the low amount of tax paid by Amazon, Google, Facebook and other digitally-based companies that provide people with their everyday supplies and other activities. Also high on the agenda has been the responsibility of social media like Facebook (and others) for the content of their platforms.

There are two separate issues here so let’s deal with tax first. Any business, whether it is owned by an individual or run by a Board of Directors (and thus responsible to shareholders) has a duty to itself to be profitable. That duty extends to those who work for it as well – after all, loss-making businesses tend to go out of business with the result that those working for it become unemployed. One of the ways in which any business cuts its expenditure is to reduce its liability for tax.

Companies usually do this by working with the tax authorities and using the Law as it stands to pay the amount of tax they are legally required to. Look at it another way – do you, as an individual, like paying tax? Of course you don’t. Most people pay their taxes as they are required to and in most cases that liability is done for them by their employer, who deducts tax before paying what’s left to the employee.

But on the basis of wanting to keep more of your money, money that you have worked hard for, if you can find a legal way of paying less tax, then you would probably take advantage of it. That applies to businesses just like it does to the individual.

So what does one do about Amazon and the others, who, it seems, are ‘getting away without paying their fair share’. I’m almost sorry to point this out but they are not. What the are doing is paying what the Law requires them to. So when one complains about big business not paying their dues, aim the arrows in the right direction; if you want big companies to pay more tax, lobby your Member of Parliament and change the Law.

The waters have become more muddied in recent times by the entirely understandable disquiet over the closing of town centre shops and stores in the face of what has been described as a relentless onslaught by companies like Amazon, with their out-of-town distribution centres and the subsequently low business rates they pay.

Again, the arrows are going in the wrong direction. Town centre stores have not adapted to the competition presented by the digital world and are paying the price for not doing so. Personally I can think of nothing better than going into a shop and having a good look at what I want to buy, before paying for it and then walking away with my purchase under my arm. Like many today however, I have found that it is increasingly easier to order online. If the town centre is to survive then it must not only do more to attract the in-person shopper but also offer a better (or at least as good as) online service and compete with the digital-only store.

It doesn’t stop there however. Towns and Cities themselves, led by the Government (both local and national) have to do their part to save the high street from plunging over the abyss.

Shops and stores generally are being forced into paying business rates and rents that are far too high (much like rents for housing) since corporate greed is not confined to the profit margins of big business. Local Councils have long seen town centre car parking as a cash cow, to be milked at every opportunity, just as they have the business rates they get from the stores themselves. Did you know for example, that some of the biggest and most well-known nationwide store chains do not actually own the buildings they occupy? Well, they don’t. Matalan for example, can be found up and down the UK but they don’t own their buildings; they rent them. Marks and Spencer, Greggs, ASDA, the recently departed Maplin, few own the buildings from which they do their business - and the rents they pay are eye-watering. As are the business rates they pay to their local councils. Rents and rates on a shop and store, levied by whoever owns the buildings and land upon which they stand, and what national Government along with local councils charge a business for doing business, have to come down.

As long as they are stung to the tune of millions per year in tax, rent and rates, they will continue to shrink and ultimately, die.

So what of the content that is posted on social media, like Facebook?

It has been said that Facebook, Twitter and the rest, have become a nesting place for violence, hatred and all other forms of sundry nastiness. Is this true? It is certainly true that social media has attracted more than its fair share of undesirable use but is this the fault of the social medium itself? Or those using it?

I would argue that yes, social media does indeed need to do more to restrict the misuse of it by some of its users. There is no shortage of people posting hatred and various forms of illegal content on all forms of social media. There is however, a fine line between justifiably removing offensive content and censorship. Since there already exist laws that prohibit doing certain things – illegal content on social media included – then it seems to me that increased observation by law enforcement is part of the answer. Not censoring what is posted but swift action against the posters of harmful content as well as its equally swift removal.

There is inevitably a ‘but’ in place; one of the problems with identifying who posts what is the name of the user. These are often fake names. Why? One quick and simple way of dealing with this is to require users to use their actual name - my name is on this column for example, as it is on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Why should it not be?

When one opens an account with any form of social media, the questions needed are straightforward: real name, address, date-of-birth and age. ‘User’ names have to go - in one fell swoop, at least some of the problems would be solved. Once can further this by requiring social media to provide those details to the Police when any illegal content is posted. The same sanction can be applied by anybody who is on the end of harmful posting; at the bottom of this page is a comments box so anybody can post their own views on what I write. People are entirely welcome to either agree or disagree with my opinion and I would defend their right to do so. All I ask is that people do so rationally and politely. But if somebody was to post ‘James you are a **** and I’m going to stalk you’, then I reserve the right to take their real name and report them for their threatening behaviour. That only works however, if they use their real name and not some trendy pseudonym.

Okay people can still use a fake name (and a fake address) but if that by itself was illegal then there is a case to be made against them. By itself, real names and addresses aren’t going to solve all the problems but how extensive are those problems?

Governments and authority generally, do not like social media. They don’t because of the freedom it gives its users. This is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. Like all good things however, humankind has a remarkable capacity for taking a good thing and misusing it.

At its best, Facebook is a wonderful tool for keeping in touch with people wherever they are in the world. It is a wonderful tool that enables people to get back in touch with those they have not seen for years; my ‘friends list’ includes people I went to school with and since I went to British Services schools in Cyprus and Germany, when we left, we rarely saw each other again – until the advent of social media, including Facebook. Through it, I have been able to get in contact with other journalists and people who work in the aviation industry, which has proved extraordinarily beneficial from the work point of view.

Twitter? It has good aspects to it, one of them being able to take in brief opinions and views on any number of subjects. Some of those opinions I agree with, some I don’t. But neither myself or any of those with whom I have been in contact, indulge in petty insults and point-scoring.

So yes, by all means pursue those who misuse it, but don’t censor it and don’t tar all users with the same brush. Social Media can be, and for most, is indeed a good thing.

© Kevan James 2018

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