Jeremy Corbyn has taken aim at the powerful tech giants currently dominating the UK's media sphere and proposed challenging their monopoly by levying a tax on these companies - and then using the kitty to fund an independent and democratic BBC. 

"A digital licence fee, supplementing the existing licence fee, collected from tech giants and internet service providers, who extract huge wealth from our shared digital space, could allow a democratised and more plural BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook," Corbyn said in a speech at the Edinburgh TV festival this week.

jeremy corbyn

This tax would be used to subsidise the cost of the BBC licensing fee, particularly for poorer households, and also contribute to an independent trust used to fund journalism that works in the public interest, such as investigative and local reporting that holds power to account. The leader of the Labour party did not go into detail regarding how large this tax would be and exactly which companies would be liable.

"Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement," Corbyn said, partly in reference to a court case between European publishers and Google in 2013 which resulted in the tech giant setting up a £52 million fund for digital publishing innovation and increasing the amount of advertising revenue reaching news publishers in France.

"If we can't do something similar here but on a more ambitious scale, we'll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund," he said. 

Corbyn railed against the possibility of a reality where a "few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires will control huge swathes of our public space and debate".

However, the question remains of how receptive tech bodies will be to these suggested taxes. Although Google and Facebook declined to comment, TechUK released a statement saying: "Many tech companies are already working hard to address the misuse of platforms to seed disinformation. Tech firms are also working with traditional news media organisations to help them transform their business models for the digital age."

Some from the tech lobby have pointed out that in March 2018, Google pledged $300 million towards helping news organisations fight fake news and expand their businesses, partly to quell criticism that the search giant has cut into the amount of ad dollars reaching news organisations. Regardless, a 2017 report from OC&C estimated that by 2020, Google and Facebook are expected to claim 71 percent of the total money spent in the UK on digital advertising.

The TechUK statement continued: "It is good to see Mr. Corbyn engaging on these issues, however we need better ideas than just another proposal to tax tech companies. The Cairncross Review has been set up explicitly to look into the future of high quality journalism in the UK.  Many TechUK members are engaged in contributing detailed submissions to this review and we hope that Labour will engage constructively with the process."

In a predictably puerile fashion, these ideas have already provoked the Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA UK) to release a fearmongering statement suggesting that such a tax would "divert resources away" from rolling out broadband and lead to increased prices for consumers.

To examine one example of an ISPA member, BT has made a net profit of £12.6 billion over the last five years, close to £5 billion of which has been paid out to shareholders. Therefore, it seems likely they'll be able to stump up an incremental tax without sacrificing the consumer product in the slightest, and it's a similar case for every other UK internet provider.

Other proposed measures from the Labour leader include offering a charitable status for not-for-profit journalistic bodies, meaning they would be able to receive tax breaks. In addition, he advocated for removing the right for ministers to veto FOI requests, pointing out that this power is partially culpable for obscuring information about the Iraq war from the public. He also supports extending the FOI request rights to private companies carrying out public contracts, to apply to the likes of the recently defunct, Carillion.

As for the BBC, Corbyn expressed a wish to make the organisation into a permanent body, no longer reliant on the regular renewals of contract with the government. In addition, to increase the public involvement in the BBC, licence fee paying citizens would be able to vote on the board members of the BBC, which is responsible for laying out the organisation's strategy and assessing whether they have fulfilled their public responsibilities.

"A free press is essential to democracy," said Corbyn. "That's why journalists need to be free to do their best work, not held back by media bosses, billionaires, or the state."