Subtitles and Transcript
0:11 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.
2:47 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.
5:25 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.
6:20 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.
7:57 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?
10:20 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.
12:30 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)