Big firms gear up for WikiLeaks, UKUncut tax war

IT firms are among the companies gearing up for a PR whitewash as WikiLeaks and others declare war on corporate piracy, accusing big names such as Google, Facebook and Vodafone of ripping off taxpayers.

Earlier this week, WikiLeaks held a press conference at which former Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer handed over discs said to contain details of 2,000 "high net worth" individuals and companies alleged to be avoiding tax.

Grassroots protest group UKUncut has identified mobile provider Vodafone as one of its top targets in a campaign to root out corporate tax avoidance.

Vodafone recently struck a deal with the Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to write off nearly £6 billion in tax. The deal follows a ten-year legal battle which, according to UK magazine Private Eye, HMRC was on the verge of winning - before a change of government appeared to provoke a U-turn in policy.

Vodafone shops were the scene of sit-ins before Christmas by supporters of UKUncut, who also protested at Top Shop stores owned by Sir Philip Green's Arcadia Group.

Green - a government adviser on reducing Whitehall waste - has been criticised for tax arrangements that enabled his wife, a resident of Monaco, to pay no tax on a whopping £1.3 billion dividend.

Search giant Google is another household hame that has attracted fierce criticism for operating one of the most sophisticated tax avoidance regimes in the corporate world.

By shunting profits around the globe using a complex web of subsidiaries based in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Google has been able to save itself an estimated $3.1 billion in tax over the last three years. The average rate of tax paid by the company on non-US earnings is 2.4 per cent.

The company appears in a list of the UK's "top ten tax shirkers" compiled by the Tax Justice Network.

Notorious whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks is also expected to turn on its fire on the private sector during 2011. Founder Julian Assange told business magazine Forbes in November that he has secret documents relating to the private sector. Rumour has it that financial giant Bank of America is already engaged in an extensive damage limitation exercise.

And with public sector cuts across Western economies putting the squeeze on ordinary citizens, the threat of being unmasked by anti-corporate activists clearly has a number of these companies running scared.

Public relations rag PR Week today reported a flurry of recruitment as the corporate world scrambles to sugar-coat its financial misdeeds.

Nick Murray-Leslie, CEO of spin doctors Chatsworth Communications, which represents IT clients including Philips and Microsoft, told PR Week:

"Reputational risk is now in the ascendency. What makes WikiLeaks so dangerous? It has changed everything. It has opened an extended risk front to the business world, that of almost instant, global reputational risk."

Be afraid, we say. Be very afraid.