This morning, at the London Anti-Corruption Summit, it was announced that France, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Afghanistan would create public beneficial ownership registers, and that Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, Indonesia, Ireland and Georgia will “agree to take the initial steps towards making similar arrangements”. Of course the devil is in the details, but let’s take this announcement at face value, and think about the next steps.
And here, to us, it is clear. We need to make sure that the registers are not just public, but available as open data. Only as open data will the data be truly usable and useful, and have the desired goals of creating a hostile environment for corruption and criminal activity. And only as open data will it be trivial to create a Global Beneficial Ownership Register, creating the visibility and access that we need. OpenCorporates itself demonstrates the power that combining public datasets can achieve. With now over 100 million companies, it has become a key part of the anti-corruption ecosystem, helping businesses, governments, civil society and investigative reports do due diligence, research and corruption investigations.
Of course, public, open data registers do not ensure that the beneficial ownership information is correct, but neither do private ones. Public, open data ones have several key advantages, however. First, it’s a lot more risky to lie in public, than it is in public (and we have ample evidence of what happens in secret).
Second, the two best ways of discovering data quality issues (including flat-out lies) are exposing it to ‘many eyes’ and combining with other datasets. In the context of beneficial ownership, this means ensuring the information is available in all sorts of contexts, so that as many people see it as possible. It also means combining with other beneficial ownership data (hence the Global Beneficial Ownership Register), to allow the chains of control to be tracked across countries, to identify contradictions between the data held in the registers, and to allow it to be combined with other data, including procurement data, lobbying data, and politically exposed persons.
Only public, open data registers (such as the UK is doing) will enable this and create an environment where corruption, criminal activity, tax evasion and fraud is more difficult, more risky, and more expensive.