Sam Leith: Sad. Wow. Angry… taxing emojis from Facebook

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Last week Facebook announced that it would not, after all, be providing its users with a “Dislike”  button. No negative vibes here, man: such a move, they said, wouldn’t be “in the spirit of the product we’re trying to build”. Instead, users will be provided with six new emoji with which they can respond to status updates. As well as “Like” you will now be able to choose from icons representing: “Love”, “Yay”, “Ha ha”, “Wow”, “Sad” and “Angry”.

Funny, isn’t it, that they ruled against negative vibes about three days before it emerged that Facebook UK, one of the company’s busiest overseas operations, last year paid £4,327 in corporation tax. To put that figure in context, if context were needed, Facebook worldwide is valued at £169 billion — which I prefer to write out as £169,000,000,000. In the absence of a “Dislike” button, users are now put to the trouble of four separate clicks, conjuring the emojis for Ha ha, Wow, Sad and Angry.

How can this be? Well, to give the non-technical explanation: something something hecatombs of ads and fountains of cash, something something Ireland, something something Cayman Islands, something something regretful-face, our British division lost £28.5 million last year: what can you do?

At least £4,327 is at least within comparing distance of what I pay in VAT per quarter. Facebook: four quarters. Me: per quarter. Comparing distance: like, small multiples. My net worth set against £169 billion: not comparing distance. 

“That’s just taking the piss,” you might say. I wonder if that’s more than just a figure of speech: could it be that they actually are taking the piss?

I mean, £4,327 is both such a hilariously specific and insultingly small figure: you’d think that with such creative accountants they could either arrange to pay no tax at all, or hit on a nice round number that — while representing a subatomic proportion of their profit — nevertheless sounded big enough to mollify the casual observer. What they’ve done is the corporate equivalent of asking a waiter whether he could split a 5p piece into a two and three ones so you can give him a tip.

More than that, the shameless bastards (I mean that in the most respectful and affectionate way, incidentally), say — and I have no doubt that this is true — they are “fully compliant with UK tax law” and add: “We continue to grow our business activities in the UK.”

It’s the earnest optimism that’s so touching: they’re not giving up. Who knows? If their 362 London staff (average pay: £210,000) really pull out the stops this year they might edge into the black. Fingers crossed!

 As I’ve argued in this space before, the real problem is not that Facebook are shameless bastards but that they can pay £4,327 in corporation tax in a year and truthfully boast of being “fully compliant with UK tax laws”. Happily, four-and-a-half years after the Chancellor described tax evasion as “morally repugnant” — implying he had a similar view about aggressive legal tax avoidance — loopholes are said to be being closed by new legislation. Better late than never.

Still, he’s had a lot on his plate. As for Facebook, meanwhile: how about adding an emoji for “for shame”?

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October 12, 2015 |
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