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A scandal of epic proportions hidden in plain sight: TED Prize winner Charmian Gooch reveals her wish at TED2014

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Charmian Gooch. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“TED Prize winners are heroes,” says longtime TEDster Jeff Skoll, as he introduces this year’s TED Prize winner. “They often go on to exceed even their own most audacious goals.”

Watch Charmian Gooch’s TED Talk >>

This year, by sheer coincidence, the Skoll Foundation and TED chose to honor the same person with their annual awards—Charmian Gooch of the organization Global Witness. While Gooch often refers to herself as a “lifelong troublemaker,” Skoll explains why her work is so much bigger than that. “For 20 years, Charmian and her organization have exposed corruption on a global scale,” says Skoll. “Charmian is truly fearless in tackling the world’s darkest forces merely with wits, intelligence and good use of technology.”

With that, Gooch steps onto the stage to reveal her TED Prize wish.

“I’ve come here today to talk about a very simple but devastating problem, one that spans the globe and affects all of us: anonymous companies,” says Gooch. “Anonymous companies are making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to find the actual human beings responsible for really bad crimes.”

Some examples of these crimes: In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, secretive mining deals with anonymous companies deprived the people of $1.36 billion — twice what the country spent last year on  health and education. Political corruption in Malaysia, meanwhile, has led to the destruction of much of the country’s forests and Global Witness has in its possession a video of a family member of the country’s chief minister telling an investigator that these deals done were done using the shield of anonymous companies. Across the globe, says Gooch, the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico uses anonymous companies to launder money. And in the United States, says Gooch, “an anonymous company bought up tax debt, piled on legal fees and gave Americans a choice: pay up or lose your home.” Gooch pauses on this one. “Imagine being threatened with losing your home, sometimes over a few hundred dollars, and never knowing who you were truly up against.”

Anonymous companies are also used for going around sanctions, says Gooch. Through an anonymous front company, the Iranian government bought a building on 5th Avenue in New York and was renting out space to Juicy Couture without anyone even knowing it. Anonymous companies have even come to light in the recent unrest 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,” says Gooch. “It truly is a scandal of epic proportions hidden in plain sight. It’s a simple truth that some of the people responsible for outrageous crimes—for stealing from me, you and millions of others—remain faceless and escape accountability. They do it with ease, using legal structures.”

So how does one set up an anonymous company, you ask, and what exactly does “with ease” mean?

Gooch reveals that it isn’t just sunny islands where it’s easy to do business anonymously. Gooch says that the United Kingdom is in fact “one of the best places in the world to set up an anonymous company.” The United States is close behind. “In some states, you need less identification to open a company than to get a driver’s license,” she says. “Delaware is one of the easiest places in the world to set up an anonymous company.”

She walks us through an example of how it can work:

  1. Go online and find a service provider to set up your company.
  2. Pay nominees—totally legally—to be listed as your company’s owner. If no one individual is available, you can use another company.
  3. Pick a company name and pay a fee, sometimes as little as $199 or less.
  4. Wait about 10 minutes for processing.

“But maybe you want to be even more anonymous? Keep adding layers,” says Gooch. “You can have hundreds of layers of companies spread over lots of countries like a giant web, each layer making it more difficult for law enforcement and others to find out who is behind it.”

Gooch pauses. “In an age when there is so much information out there in the open, why should this crucial information about company ownership stay locked away? Why shield tax evaders, corrupt government officials, and criminals? Why should this secrecy be such an accepted business practice?”

Gooch makes it clear that she isn’t anti-business. In fact, she sees the current state-of-things as a corruption of the system. “Companies were created to give people the chance to innovate and not put everything on the line,” explains Gooch. “They were  intended to limit risk, not to be a moral shield.”

And with this she comes to her 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.” She imagines achieving this by launching a global movement of public opinion, and pushing for the creation of public registries that list the true owners of companies. In all, she wants to unwind loopholes.

Gooch says that, while there hasn’t been much public discourse about this issue up to this point, she feels a sea change about to happen. “There is momentum on this issue and, over the years, I have seen the sheer power of momentum,” she says. “The UK government is already onboard supporting public registries and just last week the European Parliament voted 600-30 in favor of this.”

But it’s not time for celebration yet. “It’s still early days. America still needs to come on board as do so many other countries,” says Gooch. “This isn’t a dry policy issue—it’s a human issue that affects us all.”

She ends with a direct call to everyone in the audience, saying “We need you. Together, let’s kickstart this global movement.”