A headline in the FT from 18 May was not good PR for tech firms: ‘Google service books IBM, Citigroup and Microsoft ads to jihadi’s website’.
It turns out that designated terrorist Muhammed Jibril Abdul Rahman has been making thousands of dollars by selling advertising space to global companies and brands. His website, which features pictures of hanged men and beheadings, appears to have been using Google's AdSense to sell and show ads from international companies, including IBM, Microsoft and Citigroup.
Known as the Prince of Jihad, Abdul Rahman is a convicted accomplice of the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings that killed seven and injured about 50, and is designated a terrorist by the UN, US, and EU.
According to the FT, there is no suggestion that advertisers or Google have knowingly funded a designated terrorist, a criminal offence that can lead to 20 years in an American jail.
But imagine if this was a bank that was inadvertently funding terrorism? In fact, we don’t need to imagine, because many banks have been punished for exactly this. HSBC, for instance, was fined $1.9 billion in 2012 for allowing terrorists and Mexican drug lords to launder their money through the bank, even though they claimed not to know about it.
So where is the fine for Google in helping this terrorist actively raise money?
The answer is, there is none. And nor will there be. Just as has been said about tech’s attitude to paying tax, there seems to be an assumption in the sector, especially amongst its larger members, that rules are meant to be broken. Uber would argue that this is what makes disruption possible, to the benefit of consumers everywhere.
A similar argument is touted by aspiring fintech companies. ‘If only the regulators would get out of the way, we could make so much more progress’. But what these companies often fail to realise is that the regulator’s primary job is, generally speaking, the protection of consumers. Sure, regulaotrs may be slow and often more inclined to say no than yes, but a wholesale abrogation of regulation would allow all the cowboys to flood in and leave consumers – that’s you and I – horribly exposed.
The lesson for all this is that tech companies must realise they are part of a bigger world. Paying the right and moral rate of tax, protecting consumers, and not subsidising terrorists, are all things rightly held up to be important in the wider business environment. Of course lots of firms try and ignore the rules, but the sheer amount of hoo-ha created when they are caught doing so shows that the public takes these things seriously.
Knowing which rules to abide with, and which to challenge on behalf of consumers, is a difficult task. But that is what tech companies will have to get right if they are not to end up as popular as the banks.