Rarely a month goes by without big tech companies being hit with fines for various violations, whether it is price fixing, stifling competition, or mishandling data. However, it is alarming to note that these companies can take years before they actually pay a penny of the fines imposed on them. This article sheds light on the shocking reality of tech companies evading their financial obligations and the urgent need for more drastic measures to hold them accountable.
It is essential to recognize that this problem extends beyond the high-profile cases involving the “big four” tech giants. Even smaller tech companies engage in this practice of avoiding payment. TikTok, for example, also owes hundreds of millions, while Amazon is appealing a hefty fine of 746 million euros. Google continues to dispute EU fines amounting to over eight billion euros for abusing its market position, and Apple has been relentlessly fighting against a 1.1 billion euro fine and a 13 billion euro tax order. The problem of tech companies avoiding fines is widespread, constant, and knows no bounds when it comes to the size of the company.
Margarida Silva, a researcher at the Dutch NGO the Centre for Research on Multinationals, suggests that tech companies take pride in their reputation for “disruption.” Not paying fines aligns with their approach of challenging any enforcement of rules imposed on them. Even if these companies ultimately lose their appeals, the lengthy legal process allows them to exhaust the administration’s resources over many years. This sets the tech industry apart from sectors like finance, where there is still an incentive to pay fines to maintain public trust and appease investors.
Romain Rard, a lawyer at Gide Loyrette Nouel in Paris, argues that it is only natural for firms to appeal against substantial fines. Ignoring fines and challenging decisions in the hopes of evading payment is not a feasible strategy. However, it is crucial to note that some companies have achieved success in appealing their penalties, with chip firms Intel and Qualcomm recently overturning or significantly reducing billion-dollar EU antitrust fines. The European system differs from jurisdictions like China or the United States, where fines are often announced as settlements at the end of a lengthy legal process.
Activists contend that financial penalties have little impact on these tech companies due to their immense wealth. Austrian lawyer Max Schrems, a vocal advocate for data rights in Europe, believes that the uneven application of rules exacerbates the issue. Schrems argues that the Irish Data Protection Commission, for instance, grants tech companies too much leeway in their appeals processes and imposes fines that are far too small. While fines grab the most attention, corrective measures are also imposed in the majority of investigations, as highlighted by Ireland’s deputy data protection commissioner Graham Doyle. However, it is essential to recognize that fines alone cannot offer a comprehensive solution to the problem at hand.
Instead of relying solely on financial penalties, it is time for competition regulators to take more assertive action. Margarida Silva advocates for halting future takeovers and mergers in the tech sector while undoing the damage of the past, even if it means breaking up these tech companies. She argues that the problem with companies like Meta (formerly known as Facebook) would have been fundamentally different if they had not been allowed to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. It is imperative for competition regulators to step up their efforts and create a level playing field within the tech industry.
The practice of tech companies evading fines is an alarming and pervasive issue. The current system of financial penalties is ineffective in curbing their misconduct. It is time for more drastic action to be taken, including stricter competition regulations, the prevention of future acquisitions and mergers, and even breaking up tech giants. The evasive tactics employed by these companies only serve to undermine public trust and prolong their reign of unchecked power. It is imperative for regulators and society as a whole to challenge this farce and ensure that tech companies are held accountable for their actions.