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One Year After the Panama Papers Leaks, a New Way to Discover Company Ownership

Zosia Sztykowski|

Nearly a year ago, the Panama Papers leak set corporate transparency high on the agenda of policymakers around the world. In exposing the transnational networks and intermediaries that support a culture of corporate opacity, it also showed that this opacity comes with costs that our communities bear: facilitating crime and corruption, and poisoning the environment for ethical business.

This year, we – a group of civil society organizations and business – are presenting a new project that will incite a culture shift toward corporate transparency. OpenOwnership’s central goal is to build an open data register of global beneficial ownership in the public interest. The OpenOwnership Register will serve as a single platform from which to access data about who owns companies from around the world in a way that is easy to use, and totally free.

The ability to link beneficial ownership data across jurisdictions is critical to realizing beneficial ownership data’s potential to expose transnational networks of illicit financial flows. As the World Bank has noted, when corporate structures are used to launder money, this often involves adding layers of “legal distance” between the beneficial owner and their assets. These layers are placed strategically in a number of jurisdictions because of the difficulty to investigators of accessing information that crosses national boundaries.

The OpenOwnership Register will enable users to see the various jurisdictions in which a single person controls companies. This depends, of course, on the availability of comprehensive, public data — a number of countries including Kenya, Slovakia, UK, and the Ukraine, among others have already made related commitments in their OGP National Action Plans.

In this cycle of OGP National Action Plans, 30 more countries will have the opportunity to co-create ambitious reforms that can lead to a truly global beneficial ownership dataset. Luckily, OpenOwnership does not just provide a value-add for end users of the data, but also for national governments that are implementing their own registers. It will provide a technical solution where the rubber meets the road on collecting and publishing beneficial ownership data.

This can take a few forms:

  • Using the OpenOwnership Register as a technical back end: we’re looking to partner with countries interested in using our technology — which we are continuously making more efficient — to underpin their national registers. The register would carry your country’s branding and publish data directly to the OpenOwnership Register, to be linked with other data from around the world.

  • Integrating the OpenOwnership Register with government contracting systems: the value of linking beneficial ownership data with procurement, which is governments’ main corruption risk, is well-recognized. Countries can integrate the OpenOwnership Register with their procurement systems, collecting beneficial ownership data as part of the process and automatically publishing it to the OpenOwnership Register.

  • Publishing beneficial ownership data to the beneficial ownership data standard: along with a team of international experts, we are developing a universal and open data standard for beneficial ownership, which will provide a solid conceptual and practical foundation for collecting and publishing beneficial ownership data, addressing identifiers (both of persons and legal entities), timeliness of the data, and ownership thresholds, among other issues.

    Use the data standard to avoid recreating the wheel on publishing and collecting beneficial ownership data and ensure that your country’s data can be linked transnationally and with other data sets. The data standard is customizable to your national context.

Taking these steps does not only reduce the barriers to publishing beneficial ownership at a national level. By linking global beneficial ownership data and bringing it out into the open, we provide visibility on who owns companies, and also on where this information is as yet unavailable.

In transparent jurisdictions, the availability of the data will act as a deterrent to unethical behavior (it’s no coincidence that the 21 anonymous UK companies involved in the Global Laundromat scheme dissolved just months before the UK’s beneficial ownership register came online). And the more we shine the light on jurisdictions that remain opaque, rather than accepting opacity as business as usual, the more we make it expensive and difficult for corrupt individuals to hide.

Because the Register will also allow pro-social, ethical business to submit their own ownership data using a simple form, we can highlight these businesses even when they are headquartered in jurisdictions without central registers.

There are many more ways that we can work together to build a new culture of corporate transparency. We will be launching the OpenOwnership Register to the public on April 3, the anniversary of the Panama Papers leak. To learn more about the project and how it can help your government, business, or civil society group, join us or reach out to zosia@openownership.org.

 

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