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Panama Papers: Only 1% of countries in global study publish open company ownership data

Web Foundation · April 11, 2016

In the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, attention is now turning to how we stamp out corruption for good. While companies must report detailed information to governments, including their accounts, owners, shareholders, and directors, few countries make this information fully open to the public. Allowing open access to these records is a key step in fighting corruption.  

Despite years of promises by governments to tackle this issue, an analysis across 92 countries released today by the World Wide Web Foundation, shows that just one country – Australia – publishes company data in a fully open format. And even this data is very top-level and does not include, for example, shareholding information.

One in three countries surveyed do not publish company data online at all, and in the remaining nations studied, the data provided suffers from multiple problems: it is often incomplete, hard to find, not licensed for reuse, or subject to a usage fee.   

Commenting on this finding, which forms part of the Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer study, to be released in full on 21 April, Web Foundation CEO Anne Jellema said:

When the public has limited access to data on company ownership, shareholders, directors and accounts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that companies are flouting the rules. No one is watching.

“Governments fail to make company data open for a number of reasons – from reluctance to lose the revenue from user fees to lack of understanding of how to share the data in truly reusable formats.

“It is not hard to change this, and now is the time to act.  We call on governments to publish company datasets openly.  Opening national company registers is a key first step. If we’re serious about ending corruption, governments must go even further by supporting the recently announced Global Beneficial Ownership Register led by OpenCorporates and supported by Web Foundation.

 

Panama Papers and open company registers

We looked at our research to analyse the real quality and usability of company registers in a few selected countries (below) linked to the Mossack Fonseca leak. The full dataset is available as a csv file or as a Google spreadsheet here.

 

Quality and usability of company data in selected countries
CountryData online?Data open?Data quality
ArgentinaNoNoOur research could find no official record of companies or businesses in Argentina.
AustraliaYesYesAustralia is the only country in the study publishing company data that fully meets all of the open criteria. However, the open data available for download is very top level. To access more detailed information, such as shareholding information, users must pay a substantial fee.
BrazilNoNoThe full companies list is not available for consultation. Data on individual companies can be obtained for a fee but only if the person making the inquiry knows the company’s unique identifier assigned by the Federal Revenue Secretariat.
ChinaYesNoOnly some very basic company registration data is available. Detailed financial information is not available, there is no way to download the data to analyse it and it is under a closed copyright licence.
IcelandYesNoIcelandic law stipulates that all non-personally identifiable information should be available to citizens. But in spite of this, the records of its company register can only be consulted for a fee. The data is not downloadable in bulk and the government retains full copyright.
IndiaYesNoData is online but behind a login that not everyone can access. Company data only searchable if you have its registration number.
PakistanYesNoThe Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan has a partial list of companies registered, but it is not open to the public.
RussiaYesNoCompany data is only searchable if you have the its registration number. Then, you can find the company name, address and a short list of the latest registration actions. No other details are publicly provided and this information is not available for download or machine readable.
South AfricaYesNoCompany data is searchable, but the data available is limited, not available for download and not machine readable.
United KingdomYesNoThe UK has one of the stronger company registers in our study, Companies House, which is available for free online with detailed data downloadable in bulk and in machine readable formats. But the lack of a clear open licence creates ambiguity for data users. Additionally, shareholders are still not named in the register.

 

What is so important about “open” data?

It’s important to be clear about the difference between data that is available online and open data. Simply being posted online doesn’t make data open – for data to have maximum potential for social and economic benefits, people need to be able to get it for free, download it, analyse large quantities of it easily, cross-reference it with other datasets and know they have permission to publish their findings or use it to build a business.

Governments sometimes publish data online with good intentions, but then fail to put an open licence on it so people know it’s legal to reuse and republish it. Or the data is spread out over hundreds of pages that must be clicked one-by-one, or perhaps it is presented as a PDF or HTML web page, and so not available to download in bulk in a format computers can analyse. These problems make it nearly impossible for people to use and analyse the data.

This table shows the percentage of company data found online in our study that meets each of the open criteria. A dataset must fully and clearly meet all four criteria below to be considered open.

Of the 72% of company registers published online, what proportion are …
Machine readableDownloadable in bulkFree to access and useOpen licensed
29%14%61%8%

 

How would a beneficial ownership register help fight corruption?

Our Barometer analyses company registers, which share data on a company’s legal ownership, but do not include “beneficial owners”. Beneficial owners are people who are not named on the legal title of an entity, but who still benefit from the company – for example through income transferred via a shell company.

The Mossack Fonseca leaks show how politically exposed persons (PEPs) can use these structures to hide conflicts of interest they have failed to declare. Open data published on a global beneficial ownership register like the one recently proposed by OpenCorporates and supported by the Web Foundation would shine a light not only on who legally owns a company, but also who benefits from that company. This additional layer of public scrutiny would allow citizens to double-check public officials have declared all of their interests openly and fairly.

 

What additional data will be released in the full Barometer on 21 April?

On 21 April, we are releasing the 3rd edition of the Open Data Barometer – a snapshot of open data progress, opportunities and threats across 92 countries around the world. In it, we will cover: 1. How ready governments are to roll out open data; 2. How well governments are implementing it through the publication of data; and 3. What impact open data is having on the lives of citizens.

In addition to data on company registers, we have also analysed 14 more of the most sought-after datasets including:

  • Public spending
  • Government budgets
  • International trade
  • Health
  • Education
  • Mapping
  • Transport
  • Land
  • National statistics
  • Legislation
  • Elections
  • Government contracts
  • Environment
  • Crime

To receive the latest updates, follow us @webfoundation on Twitter or sign up to our newsletter.

 

Press enquiries

To request an interview, background briefing with the research team, or an embargoed copy of the full Open Data Barometer report and/or dataset, please contact:

Kristen Robinson, Communications Manager

kristen.robinson@webfoundation.org

+44 20 3287 7228

The data is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License, and we encourage you to explore, re-use and remix the data.

Please cite any uses of the data as: World Wide Web Foundation, Open Data Barometer Global Report (Third Edition), 2016.

 

The Open Data Barometer is supported by the Open Data for Development (OD4D) program, a partnership funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the World Bank, United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), and Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

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  1. David

    April 18, 2016

    Where are the names for Canada andUSA did the government prevent them from being published?

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    1. David Roberts

      May 9, 2016

      Your assessment of the UK situation is incorrect. Shareholders in private limited companies are listed in the annual returns that each company must make to Companies House. These are freely available as part of the register. The beneficial owners of a particular shareholding do not currently need to be filed, but this will soon be a requirement.

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