Apple's taxing problem

New York Times accuses Apple of tax avoidance on a large scale

The New York Times has published an in-depth look at Apple's tax arrangements, which finds that the computing company avoided paying around $2.4bn federal income tax in the US last year. The company paid, worldwide, tax of $3.3bn on profits of $34.2bn, although it does not break down what proportion of that tax is paid in what countries, nor does it detail which years the tax is due to – as Worstall points out, American corporation tax is usually deferred, so some of that tax will actually be on last year's profits rather than this years.

Tax avoidance stories always raise the question of definition. In this case, for instance, much of Apple's tax bill will be naturally reduced by the fact that the company sells 64 per cent of its products outside of its American home, and makes almost everything in China. Since it doesn't have to pay American tax on something made in China and sold in Ireland, it perfectly acceptably reduces its liability.

Yet as with all of these stories, that sort of reduction is not all that the company is doing. Many of their accounting structures seem to be put in place with the sole purpose of abusing the tax laws of multiple nations to pay as little as possible. Take, for example, the accounting technique improbably known as "double Irish with a Dutch sandwich". If Apple sells something in the UK, the profits are accountable to an Irish subsidiary, which then passes them on to a Dutch company taking advantage of European capital mobility, then back to a second Irish company which is technically owned by a company in a country with a 0 per cent corporation tax rate.

On paper, then, the majority of Apple's profits are made outside of the US. Despite the fact that the majority of sales are also made internationally, the NYT points out that:

The majority of Apple’s executives, product designers, marketers, employees, research and development, and retail stores are in the United States. Tax experts say it is therefore reasonable to expect that most of Apple’s profits would be American as well. The nation’s tax code is based on the concept that a company “earns” income where value is created, rather than where products are sold.

Even when profits make it into the United States, Apple still moves them in ways that seem wholly to do with paying lower taxes. The company makes all of its corporate investments through a subsidiary with the pun-tastic name Braeburn Capital, which is based in Reno, Nevada – 200 miles from Cupertino, and with a 0 per cent state corporation tax rather than California's 8.84 per cent.

Apple is far from alone in behaving like this, but the company has managed to retain a remarkably spotless image while growing to become the biggest in the world. They already suffered greatly from the perception that they were callously mistreating their workers in China, and this report could create a problem almost as large.

San Francisco, California. Apple reported a 93 percent surge in second quarter earnings with a profit of $11.6 billion Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.