Meet our trustees: Esther Dyson

Last summer, OpenCorporates announced the creation of the OpenCorporates Trust, the entity that guarantees OpenCorporates’ public-benefit mission, and ensures we always operate to open up company data for the public good.

One of our trustees is Esther Dyson, a journalist and investor with interests in technology/IT, health  and transparency among other things. Esther was founding chairman of ICANN and chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and sat on the board of the Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on government transparency. She is now the Executive Founder of Wellville, a 10-year non-profit project to show the value of thinking long-term and across boundaries by investing in health as an asset. In 1986, she wrote “Release 2.0: A design for living in the digital age” , a best-selling book on the impact of the Internet, and was an early investor in tech start-ups such as Flickr, Square, Yandex, 23andMe, Evernote and Facebook.

Hello, tell us a little about who you are?

I started my career as a journalist:  I produced the “Dyson Gazette” when I was 8 years old using carbon paper. For three years (1974-76) I worked for Forbes magazine as a fact-checker and then as a reporter. It was the most amazing job in the world. I was 23 years old and my job was to go and talk to people, to find out the truth.  You couldn’t just be satisfied with what somebody said;  you had to make sure could it stand up under inspection. In some sense that has been training for everything I have done since, including 25 years running a newsletter and a conference about the technology industry.

What drew you to being an OpenCorporates trustee?

OpenCorporates was a natural thing for me to be excited about because I believe in transparency. The more power you have, the more transparency you should provide … and that applies to companies as well as to governments.

Why do you support OpenCorporates?

I don’t worship in the church of the media but I uphold the religion of truth and transparency. I believe in privacy for people without power, and transparency for people and institutions who have power. OpenCorporates helps makes the truth about companies available … to the extent that people aren’t totally lying and perjuring themselves which should get them into real trouble. There is more to the truth than just these documents, but it is the beginning, and the presumption that this information is available to the public is really important.

What does a future without OpenCorporates look like?

It’s scary. Some companies say, “Well, we are private,” and it’s true they don’t have the same power as governments. But the reality is that they have a lot of power and sometimes they use it to twist and coerce governments. Anywhere there is money, there is inherently some ability to influence people against their better judgement.

How is OpenCorporates data useful for journalistic or regulatory investigations?

The Panama Papers is one example, but the big case in the United States right now is Jeffrey Epstein, which has only just begun. You could say people are too focused on the sex and the girls and not enough on the money, because clearly the reason he got away with what he did was his money, which captivated and seduced people around him. I think there is going to be a lot more coming out over time and I assume OpenCorporates data will be helpful in tracking down all his entanglements.

How do we ensure access to company data is open for all?

In the long run, we need to create a culture where people expect transparency, rather than one where governments say, “Come here and pay us a low tax rate and we’ll keep your data secret.” Countries should not compete on the basis of allowing people to take up residence to hide from rightful transparency.

If you’d had OpenCorporates when you were a reporter at Forbes how would it have changed your methods? 

I used to go to our library, which was basically a huge room full of filing cabinets with folders.  For  each company there would be a few press releases with one or two documents. These were incredibly incomplete and you had to telephone someone or write them a letter to ask for more information, and they might or might not respond.

I remember a report I did on women and minorities in retailing back in 1973 [just before moving to Forbes]. One company reported that they had 1,200 minorities working for them one year, then 120 the next year – or some such astonishing figures. It turns out somebody in the company had dropped the zero and nobody had actually read the filing and noticed the discrepancy.

OpenCorporates would totally have saved me time and effort because it lets you find out if information about a company is true, unless somebody is perjuring themselves, or to find it at all. But there are also other improvements like the fact that regulatory filings are becoming much more complete in the first place.

How does your background inform your support for OpenCorporates?

Primarily as a user of their information. I’m primarily an investor now, so I know how these things work and I know how badly they work, and that’s why I know how necessary OpenCorporates is.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I don’t really have any spare time, but I get to travel a lot and I would much rather visit a dentist’s office in Estonia than a museum, or go to the back of a kitchen than the front of a fancy restaurant. I love seeing where people are actually doing the work, and I’m blessed to be able to do that:  I have visited a lingerie factory in Sri Lanka and a dentist’s office in Tallinn.

Do you have a favourite film?

I have so many but one that comes to mind is “The Lives of Others”, which is about surveillance and privacy – basically an imbalance of transparency and power.

Do you have any favourite quotes or words of advice?

One I’m known for, and get royalties from, is “Always make new mistakes”. You can buy a refrigerator magnet with that on it! The other is to never take a job for which you are already qualified – and that probably applies to my role at OpenCorporates.  I hope to contribute, but I also expect to learn a lot.

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