Opportunity for Europe-wide Open Company Data

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Three months ago, and with very little fanfare, the EU announced a call for feedback on a proposal to amend the company law directive regarding digital tools and processes. This may sound very dry and technical, and in some ways it is. It’s also an opportunity to truly open up European company data, and in the process:

  • Create a better, more trusted, more transparent environment for business
  • Massively improve society’s understanding of the corporate world – at the moment company data (as data) is effectively only accessible to those with power and money
  • Provide a hostile environment for criminal use of companies – money laundering, corruption, fraud and organised crime
  • Make Europe the leader in emerging new technologies – for which open company data will be an important foundation

Perhaps because we don’t have lobbying companies on retainer, we weren’t aware of the proposal until the week before it was due. Nor were Global Witness, Transparency International nor any of the other NGOs who’ve been campaigning for greater corporate transparency and improved access to statutory company data. (This should be a worry for the Commission – clearly if such critical organisations aren’t aware of the proposed directive, let alone having been consulted on it, something’s going wrong.)

The good news is that the Commission has recognised that access to company information is uneven across member states, with some having made much more progress than others in making information freely available (and as open data). It’s also proposing to make more information available for free across Europe.

The bad news is that the Commission has, somewhat bizarrely, failed to recognise that – in this modern, data-driven world – information needs to be freely available as structured data with a licence that allows reuse, including commercial – i.e. as open data. This is even more strange, given the Commission’s support for open data, and the slow but definite progress in open data in Europe more broadly.

It’s a real missed opportunity, given how little progress has been made in opening up European company data, and how important it is.

However, all is not lost. We believe that the arguments for Europe-wide open company data are compelling, and that the proposed directive can easily be changed to ensure that the data is made not just free, on a record-by-record basis, but available in bulk as open data – truly free, for access and reuse by all.

This is why we have responded to the directive, and have mobilised support among civil society, who have realised that this is a tremendous opportunity for genuinely making company data properly open and free for the good of society. Despite the short deadlines, we’ve had a great take-up, with some of the most influential NGOs and organisations responding, including:

And this is a proposed directive, not the final version. Not only does the Commission have the ability to revise it, it also needs to be reviewed by Council, and, crucially, the European Parliament, who have generally taken forward-thinking positions.

The next stage is to mobilise support within the Parliament to get the amendment – hopefully with the Commission – following the responses by civil society – being a willing, or even eager, supporter of this.

Our response in brief

The proposal for the Directive extends the scope of access to information about companies, and correctly identifies many of the issues, particularly the barriers to access and use of data. However, we live in a world where people and companies get their information where, when and how they want it (via apps, via Software As A Service and Data As A Service platforms, and via deep integration with other datasets).

In order to deliver the outcomes of the directive, it is essential that the company information identified by the proposal is not just free of charge, but published under an open licence. By making this information available as open data – an approach recognised by both the European Commission and the G8 as maximising the utility of the data – the underlying goals of the directive can be achieved both quickly, easily, and for almost zero cost. Without open data we do not believe the that the underlying goals will be achieved.

Our recommendations

  1. Company register information should be made available as structured data, free of charge, under an open reuse licence.
  2. The core data points made available should, at a minimum, be those that allow companies, employees and other stakeholders to understand who they’re doing business with, and the risks involved in doing so, and therefore should include the directors, shareholders, and crucially, beneficial owners.
  3. The Commission should work with wider stakeholders to understand how further information made available as open data could further reduce the barriers to cross border business, increasing trust and transparency, as well as creating a hostile environment for bad actors.

You can read our full reply to the proposal here.

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