Google has publicly warned about incorrect assumptions on the role of user data in
its search engine business amid efforts to impose a new tax on such activity.
“When it comes to search engine advertising, which is obviously our core business
model, the role of user data in that is vastly overestimated,” Andrew Ure, head of
trade and economic affairs for Alphabet Inc.’s Google, said July 2 at a University
of Oxford business tax conference.
Ure’s comments follow a European Union proposal in March to impose a new tax on the
revenue of internet-based businesses that derive significant commercial value from
In a March 21 memo, the European Commission grouped “search engines” alongside social media companies,
like Facebook Inc., as an example of user-generated value for businesses. The same
month, the U.K. Treasury also indirectly cited Google in its own plans for a revenue tax on digital companies, arguing that grouped
user data can boost a search engine’s efficiency.
However, in the panel discussion held at the Oxford University Centre for Business
Taxation’s summer tax conference, Ure stressed that Google itself provides the most
value to its search engine.
“A huge amount of the value that is created is in relation to the engineers who are
building our products, testing the products, trying and failing, trying again, and
investing in R&D to create something that is actually going to be valuable to users,”
he said. “What is valuable to users is that, when they ask a question, they get a
result that is highly relevant.”
Globally, lawmakers are currently split on how to tax internet-based companies like
The OECD is aiming to find a global consensus on the issue in 2020. Ahead of that
date, though, some countries are seeking to introduce temporary measures to compensate
for what they perceive as lost corporate taxes. While the U.K. is exploring a revenue-based tax, India and Italy have already adopted similar measures.
The European Commission’s revenue-based levy would apply to businesses with global
annual revenue of at least 750 million euros ($870 million), and annual EU revenue
of more than 50 million euros, according to a March 21 news release. Overall, the measure is expected to raise as much as 5 billion euros a year for
Policymakers are opting for revenue-based levies on digital companies because sales
are easier for tax authorities to pinpoint than profits as user-generated value in
“This interim tax ensures that those activities which are currently not effectively
taxed would begin to generate immediate revenues for Member States,” the commission
said March 21.
Within the past five months, though, smaller countries like Luxembourg and Ireland
have argued that the bloc risks putting itself at a competitive disadvantage unless
a global deal is reached on the taxation of the digital economy. The opposition is
significant, as the European Commission needs member states’ unanimous approval for
At the conference, Ure declined to comment when asked by Bloomberg Tax on how else
the commission’s proposed tax may affect Google if it wouldn’t hamper its search engine
Instead, equally acknowledging divisions on the proposal and the risk of countries
enforcing more individual measures, he outlined an ideal outcome from the current
“The overwhelming majority of people in the business community want to see an agreement
that is a coherent framework and agreed multilaterally,” Ure said.
User Data Monetized
In its memo for a revenue-based tax, the European Commission cited an individual “liking”
a social media webpage as an example of user-generated value. Companies like Facebook
can monetize this information through displaying targeted advertisements to their
Advertising made up 86 percent of Alphabet’s 2017 revenue of $110.9 billion, according
to its latest annual report.
“The goal of our advertising business is to deliver relevant ads at just the right
time and to give people useful commercial information, regardless of the device they’re
using,” it said.