Charmian Gooch: My wish: To launch a new era of openness in business

I’ve come here today to talk to you about a problem. It’s a very simple yet devastating problem, one that spans the globe and is affecting all of us. The problem is anonymous companies. It sounds like a really dry and technical thing, doesn’t it? But anonymous companies are making it difficult and sometimes impossible to find out the actual human beings responsible sometimes for really terrible crimes. So, why am I here talking to all of you? Well, I guess I am a lifelong troublemaker and when my parents taught my twin brother and I to question authority, I don’t think they knew where it might lead. (Laughter) And, they probably really regretted it during my stroppy teenage years when, predictably, I questioned their authority a lot. And a lot of my school teachers didn’t appreciate it much either. You see, since the age of about five I’ve always asked the question, but why? But why does the Earth go around the sun? But why is blood red? But why do I have to go to school? But why do I have to respect the teachers and authority? And little did I realize that this question would become the basis of everything I would do. And so it was in my twenties, a long time ago, that one rainy Sunday afternoon in North London I was sitting with Simon Taylor and Patrick Alley and we were busy stuffing envelopes for a mail out in the office of the campaign group where we worked at the time. And as usual, we were talking
about the world’s problems. And in particular, we were talking about the civil war in Cambodia. And we had talked about that
many, many times before. But then suddenly we stopped and looked at each other and said, but why don’t we try and change this? And from that slightly crazy question, over two decades and many campaigns later, including alerting the world to the problem of blood diamonds funding war, from that crazy question, Global Witness is now an 80-strong team of campaigners, investigators,
journalists and lawyers. And we’re all driven by the same belief, that change really is possible. So, what exactly does Global Witness do? We investigate, we report, to uncover the people really responsible for funding conflict — for stealing millions from citizens around the world, also known as state looting, and for destroying the environment. And then we campaign hard to
change the system itself. And we’re doing this because
so many of the countries rich in natural resources like oil or diamonds or timber are home to some of the poorest and most dispossessed people on the planet. And much of this injustice is made possible by currently accepted business practices. And one of these is anonymous companies. Now we’ve come up against anonymous companies in lots of our investigations, like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we exposed how secretive deals involving anonymous companies had deprived the citizens of one of the poorest countries on the planet of well over a billion dollars. That’s twice the country’s health
and education budget combined. Or in Liberia, where an international predatory logging company used front companies as it attempted to grab a really huge chunk of Liberia’s unique forests. Or political corruption in Sarawak, Malaysia, which has led to the destruction
of much of its forests. Well, that uses anonymous companies too. We secretly filmed some of the family of the former chief minister and a lawyer as they told our undercover investigator exactly how these dubious deals are done using such companies. And the awful thing is, there are so many other examples out there from all walks of life. This truly is a scandal of epic proportions hidden in plain sight. Whether it’s the ruthless Mexican drugs cartel, the Zetas, who use anonymous companies
to launder profits while their drugs-related violence is tearing communities apart across the Americas. Or the anonymous company, which bought up Americans’ tax debts, piled on the legal fees and then gave homeowners a choice: Pay up or lose your home. Imagine being threatened with losing your home sometimes over a debt of just a few hundred dollars, and not being able to find out who you were really up against. Now anonymous companies are great for sanctions busting too. As the Iranian government found out when, through a series of front companies, it owned a building in the very heart of Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue, despite American sanctions. And Juicy Couture, home of of the velvet track suit, and other companies were the unwitting, unknowing tenants there. There are just so many examples, the horesemeat scandal in Europe, the Italian mafia, they’ve used these companies for decades. The $100 million American Medicare fraud, the supply of weapons to wars around the world including those in Eastern Europe in the early ’90s. Anonymous companies have even come to light in the recent revolution in the Ukraine. But, for every case that we and others expose there are so many more that will remain hidden away because of the current system. And it’s just a simple truth that some of the people responsible
for outrageous crimes, for stealing from you and me and millions of others, they are remaining faceless and they are escaping accountability and they’re doing this with ease, and they’re doing it using legal structures. And really, that is unfair. Well, you might well ask, what exactly is an anonymous company, and can I really set one up, and use it, without anyone knowing who I am? Well, the answer is, yes you can. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to see some of that for yourself, so let me show you. Well first you need to work out where you want to set it up. Now, at this point you might be imagining one of those lovely tropical island tax havens but here’s the thing, shockingly, my own hometown, London, and indeed the U.K., is one of the best places in the world to set up an anonymous company. And the other, even better, I’m afraid that’s America. Do you know, in some states across America you need less identification to open up a company than you do to get a library card, like Delaware, which is one of the easiest places in the world to set up an anonymous company. Okay, so let’s say it’s America, and let’s say it’s Delaware, and now you can simply go online and find yourself a company service provider. These are the companies that
can set your one up for you, and remember, it’s all legal,
routine business practice. So, here’s one, but there are plenty of others to choose from. And having made your choice, you then pick what type of company you want and then fill in a contact, name and address. But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be your name. It can be your lawyer’s or your service provider’s, and it’s not for the public record anyway. And then you add the owner of the company. Now this is the key part, and again it doesn’t have to be you, because you can get creative, because there is a whole universe
out there of nominees to choose from. And nominees are the people that you can legally pay to be your company’s owner. And if you don’t want to involve anyone else, it doesn’t even have to be an actual human being. It could be another company. And then finally, give your company a name add a few more details and make your payment. And then the service provider will take a few hours or more to process it. But there you are, in 10 minutes of online shopping you can create yourself an anonymous company. And not only is it easy, really, really easy and cheap, it’s totally legal too. But the fun doesn’t have to end there, maybe you want to be even more anonymous. Well, that’s no problem either. You can simply keep adding layers, companies owned by companies. You can have hundreds of layers with hundreds of companies spread across lots of different countries, like a giant web, each layer adds anonymity. Each layer makes it more difficult for law enforcement and others to find out who the real owner is. But whose interests is this all serving? It might be in the interests of the company or a particular individual, but what about all of us, the public? There hasn’t even been a global conversation yet about whether it’s okay to misuse companies in this way. And what does it all mean for us? Well, an example that really haunts me is one I came across recently. And it’s that of a horrific fire in a nightclub in Buenos Aires about a decade ago. It was the night before New Year’s Eve. Three thousand very happy revelers, many of them teenagers, were crammed into a space meant for 1,000. And then tragedy struck, a fire broke out plastic decorations were melting from the ceiling and toxic smoke filled the club. So people tried to escape only to find that some of the fire doors had been chained shut. Over 200 people died. Seven hundred were injured trying to get out. And as the victims’ families
and the city and the country reeled in shock, investigators tried to find out who was responsible. And as they looked for the owners of the club, they found instead anonymous companies, and confusion surrounded the identities of those involved with the companies. Now ultimately, a range of people were charged and some went to jail. But this was an awful tragedy, and it shouldn’t have been so difficult just to try and find out who was responsible for those deaths. Because in an age when there is so much information out there in the open, why should this crucial information about company ownership stay hidden away? Why should tax evaders, corrupt
government officials, arms traders and more, be able to hide their identities from us, the public? Why should this secrecy be such
an accepted business practice? Anonymous companies might be the norm right now but it wasn’t always this way. Companies were created to give people a chance to innovate and not have to put everything on the line. Companies were created to limit financial risk, they were never intended to
be used as a moral shield. Companies were never intended to be anonymous, and they don’t have to be. And so I come to my wish. My wish is for us to know who owns and controls companies so that they can no longer be used anonymously against the public good. Together let’s ignite world opinion, change the law, and launch a new era of openness in business. So what might this look like? Well, imagine if you could go online and look up the real owner of a company. Imagine if this data were open and free, accessible across borders for citizens and businesses and law enforcement alike. Imagine what a game changer that would be. So how are we going to do this? Well, there is only one way. Together, we have to change the law globally to create public registries which list the true owners of companies and can be accessed by all with no loopholes. And yes, this is ambitious, but there is momentum on this issue, and over the years I have seen the sheer power of momentum, and it’s just starting on this issue. There is such an opportunity right now. And the TED community of creative and innovative thinkers and doers across all of society could make the crucial difference. You really can make this change happen. Now, a simple starting point is the address behind me for a Facebook page that you can join now to support the campaign and spread the word. It’s going to be a springboard for our global campaigning. And the techies among you, you could really help us create a prototype public registry to demonstrate what a powerful tool this could be. Campaign groups from around the world have come together to work on this issue. The U.K. government is already on board; it supports these public registries. And just last week, the European Parliament came on board with a vote 600 to 30 in favor of public registries. That is momentum. (Applause) But it’s early days. America still needs to come on board, as do so many other countries. And to succeed we will all together need to help and push our politicians, because without that, real far-reaching, world-shifting change just isn’t going to happen. Because this isn’t just about changing the law, this is about starting a conversation about what it’s okay for companies to do, and in what ways is it acceptable
to use company structures. This isn’t just a dry policy issue. This is a human issue which affects us all. This is about being on the right side of history. Global citizens, innovators,
business leaders, individuals, we need you. Together, let’s kickstart this global movement. Let’s just do it, let’s end anonymous companies. Thank you. (Applause)

54 thoughts on “Charmian Gooch: My wish: To launch a new era of openness in business

  1. While a noble cause, she's only going to make life harder for the majority of businesses because of the ass backwards ways in which governments work. I give you FATCA… an effort to hunt down tax evasion in the US. Unintended consequence: fewer foreign banks want to do business with US companies, foreign companies with US persons in positions of authority and US persons in general. Result: Greatly reduces abilities of small to medium sized companies to operate outside the US as well as placing US persons in overseas positions. Governments are too corrupt and shortsighted to be giving them any more power. 

  2. Anonymous companies…?? Wtf are you talking about..  It's the CFR, Trilateral Commission, UN, Bankers, CIA, Mossad….

  3. Good luck with that. Hear about any bankers "jumping" off buildings lately?

    People die when they try and change this system. The tyrants that be would rather see the world burn along with all of us before they give in an inch. It's like hell on earth and they laugh and laugh and don't feel the pain we do.

    Business leaders are sociopaths. Politicians are greedy cowards. Most citizens are ignorant and apathetic. Nope. This "whole thing" crashes before change comes.

  4. It only needs few countries to not join your idea and there you have it, a loophole.
    Same as the bank system and countries, who benefit from hiding their dirty clients.

  5. Well start with the trail lawyers first who launch so many frivolous lawsuits.
     It's also non of your damn business what I own. Fist and foremost I see a statist system like this being abused by the state.

  6. Is this woman aware that current world "economy" is based on corruption, military spending, revolving doors, conflict of interest, bribery, drugs and arms trade, slave labor and overall legalized violence proliferation?
    Is she aware that everything goes down if real, unbiased openness is introduced? What would happen to tentacles of US military/information industrial complex or UK financial crime syndicate? I am not sure west itself is ready to face the truth. Or is it just about Iranians and other "wrongdoers" as usual?

  7. Charmian Gooch, the CEO of Global Witness, a NGO created with the intention of finding out corrupt anonymous companies across the world. These companies are dangerous, It may be Italian Mafia, Mexican Drug Cartel or American Arms Trader – she explain how they are creating harm to us and stresses the need for transparency in disclosing the ownership of those 'hidden' companies. Global Witness is doing a commendable job. Highly recommended to all.

  8. Yeah!! If we want safety we NEED big brother.
    I mean, it's clearly that is impossible to have a culture of responsible consumers, better trust more in bureaucrats since they are so incorruptible.
    Big companies use government influence to practice outrageous acts and that's why we need more government influence. Genius insights of this woman.
    Just look at the hard evidence, countries with big influence of the government on the market are the most developed…
    They're not?

  9. Its not the business of the "general public" if I choose not to pay taxes, or if I choose to hide my identity. It's a risk I should be able to take. Governments can bleed their citizens dry and the people are just supposed to take it? People choose to remain anonymous for a reason. When governments take 35% of a persons yearly income, it should come as no surprise when the people go to greater lengths to conceal their income and identities. As long as the tax rate is as high as it is, you can expect that people are going to keep evading taxes. 

    I live in Canada and I should not have to support the ridiculous decisions that Stephen Harper and his government makes, nor do I support taking power and money from corporations and giving more of it to the government to spend as they please. 

    In the United States people certainly don't support the NSA's spying, but they should have to pay for it? This video talks about corrupt individuals and businesses, but it says little about corrupt governments. 

  10. The hardest part is when some governments are the anonymous company or supporting them to rip of their own  citizens !!!

  11. This is something that must include all companies and banks or else it should include none of them but 100% transparency will likely never happen, unless people demand it.

  12. I can see it now, the smaller scams will be vilified and targeted while the bigger scams get away with anything and everything.

  13. She is pushing an extreme ideologue that I don't agree with & if it gains a significant amount of momentum it will only cause another World War. I'm saying this as poor person too.

    EDIT: Well I don't agree with full openness in business or people's personal lives because I believe in privacy. I'm not against knowing who's responsible for legitimate business's though as that should be standard information.

  14. but surely that would put an end to most state sponsored terrorism, state drug dealing, state corruption of all types. I can't imagine our owners going along with this brilliant idea .

  15. I think she misses the other partner in these acts – the government officials that are complicit in allowing these things to happen.  Cronyism is a large part of the cause of poverty in countries that have natural resources and could generate economic benefit for their citizens.

  16. Right on the right button…..
    Let us go into the global world of law and order equal for ALL! ASAP or global tragedy!

  17. Any step towards a global government is ambitious one. Instead of every country doing its own thing we need to work together and put together a government that ultimately super cedes the influence of wealth when it was the corruption that lead to their wealth. How you do that idk.

  18. the most problem not just the anonymous companies the real problem is the war on them if we give the legal way to establish thier business in public they will not find who will deal with them in black market.

  19. thats a horrible idea, you dont need to know every owner of a business.  You should just be able to pierce the veil for the few corrupt ones.  You'll make all us millionaires and other successful people known, then we can be targeted by simple whitepages lookups.  Dont be dumb lady, this is dangerous what you're trying to do.

  20. Please sign my petition i made on based on this Talk.

  21. The root of the problem is not in the anonymity of companies. It is in the acceptance that capital gets the most returns from an enterprise and companies don't give a fair share of the profits to their employees. Because of this, companies are by their very nature exploitative, as exploitative as they can be, to maximise their returns to the owners/ shareholders/ investors even at the cost of their employees, society and the environment.

  22. We would need to start by teaching people to have the courage to be willing to voice their opinions without having to hide behind anonymity.  Perhaps when children ask "but why" and get told "because I said so" we destroy that courage.  Lucky you.

  23. It is great to keep the companies accountable, but what about your habits of consumption? Everyday we always interact—eat, use, produce, work, apply and etc— with products, such as make up, clothing, timber and etc. It is a habit that we always do. But, do you know the origins of the products you are interacting with? Are they produced by animal cruelty, child labor, sweatshops, environmental destruction and etc? Did the products cause social, economic and political problems, such as gender inequality, wars, poverty and discrimination? Truth is every product you purchase is like a vote to a certain future, good or bad. Every product you purchase gives the companies support to continue to do their ways. If you change you consumption habits, it will indeed stop these awful bastards. Buy only products that were produced by fair trade, eco friendly, animal cruelty free and etc.

  24. This talk is truly excited to me. The question is how to get everyone on the same page? UK has been on board, what about all other countries? The thing is I think it is not just business, but also politics, there are politicians that are benefited and have vested interest in the system and these set of laws, who don't want to have it taken away. They would lobby for the laws to remain the same. If these people never lose power, what does it leave us? I always think about whether it is necessary for a major revolution to happen so we can make this world more transparent, more close to our ideals of liberty and dignity and freedom. Though I favor gradual change but i think revolutions are necessary. 

  25. The point is many goverments are generators of these Anonymous companies and they form and desolve them every time they would like.

  26. anonymous relates highly to freedom.
    you are likely to be free to voice stuff on if you're anonymous, etc.

  27. Why? All this would do is force companies to pay taxes. And if they disagree with paying taxes because of the way the governmental system is set up they have no legal power. it's you will be extorted. Being anonymous protects people, it doesn't threaten them. I didn't hear any good reasons as to why we would want to know who owns what? So they can be forced to do things against there will. Being anonymous doesn't make them corrupt. Being anonymous just makes it easier for them to live a normal life.

  28. WTF? I Russia all companies have public details about them uwners, and authorities can always control situation.

    I don't understand. Is it a real legal round the world? I'm in choke.

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