Skip to main content

TED Prize winner: Rip veil off corporate criminals

By Richard Galant
updated 2:46 AM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
Charmian Gooch, co-founder of Global Witness, at TED2013 in Edinburgh.
Charmian Gooch, co-founder of Global Witness, at TED2013 in Edinburgh.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charmian Gooch, co-founder of Global Witness, awarded $1 million TED Prize
  • Her group campaigns for disclosure of true owners of corporations to fight corruption
  • TED conference also features Edward Snowden, who assails NSA surveillance
  • Snowden says some of his most important revelations have yet to be made

Editor's note: Richard Galant is senior editor of CNN.com's Opinion section. Follow him on Twitter.

Vancouver, British Columbia (CNN) -- Charmian Gooch, the anti-corruption crusader who co-founded Global Witness, called Tuesday night for action to lift the veil on who owns corporations around the world. She made that wish as she accepted the $1 million TED Prize at the TED2014 conference.

"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. Let's ignite world opinion, change the law, and together launch a new era of openness in business."

Her call to expose criminals and corrupt officials came at the end of the first full day of TED's 30th anniversary conference. Earlier, another speaker on transparency, Edward Snowden, argued his case that NSA surveillance programs infringe privacy for no real benefit.

In her TED Prize wish, Gooch made the case that the identity of corporate owners shouldn't be kept private.

She said the development of a public registry of corporate ownership would enable the exposure of tax evasion, terrorism, drug trafficking, conflict minerals, sanctions busting and political corruption. "This truly is a scandal of epic proportions hidden in plain sight," Gooch said. In states such as Delaware, she said, it's easier to set up a company than to get a library card, and in 10 minutes of online shopping you can have a corporation to shield your identity.

As examples of the need to ferret out the true ownership of companies, she cited the investigation of the assets owned by the ousted regime of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and said the impoverished people of the Democratic Republic of Congo had been cheated of a billion dollars by anonymous companies. Gooch and her two Global Witness co-founders have also received the $1 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

Global Witness was founded 20 years ago and gained fame in part from its reporting on how the diamond trade was fueling conflict in Africa.

She says the UK government and the European Parliament are "on board" in support of the public registry, and that her group is working to get support from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. "America is the next big target," Gooch said. "It has to come on board." She said the United States and United Kingdom account for a majority of the cases in which shielded corporate ownership is used to hide crime.

Two U.S. senators, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa have introduced a bill that would require states to ask people seeking to set up corporations to disclose their true owners. "Today, money launderers, arms dealers, drug lords, terrorists and tax evaders are too often able to conceal their misconduct behind a wall of corporate secrecy," Levin said in a statement.

The topics of secrecy and privacy came up in a different context when Snowden told the TED2014 conference from an undisclosed location in Russia on Tuesday that "we don't have to give up our liberty to have security."

Edward Snowden, on screen, talks from Russia with TED\'s Chris Anderson at the TED2014 conference.
Edward Snowden, on screen, talks from Russia with TED's Chris Anderson at the TED2014 conference.

Appearing on a small screen mounted on a rolling, swiveling robot that looked a bit like an upright vacuum cleaner, the former National Security Agency contractor said, "I am proof that you can go up against the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world and win."

Snowden said he doesn't think of himself as a hero, but TED curator Chris Anderson asked the audience of 1,200 whether he had performed a heroic act, and many agreed. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was asked to come on stage and also said he would classify Snowden as a hero. A minority of those in the audience raised their hands to say they considered Snowden's release of classified government information a "reckless" act.

Snowden: 4th amendment changed in secret

Snowden endorsed Berners-Lee's argument that this year's 25th anniversary of the Web should be the occasion for a new "magna carta" establishing the right to online freedom.

He said people deserve a right to privacy when they order a book online, call their families or travel and shouldn't be subject to how the government will interpret their acts later. Snowden argued that surveillance hasn't prevented terrorist acts and that the fight against terrorism is a cover for intrusive government agencies.

The most important thing private companies can do to protect consumers is to encrypt their data, Snowden said. He said the action of someone ordering a copy of the book "1984" on Amazon can be discovered by intelligence agencies because the data is not encrypted.

Asked about criticism by former Vice President Dick Cheney that he has done enormous damage to America's national security, Snowden said that "going to war with people who are not our enemies, in places that aren't threats, doesn't make us safe."

Snowden, who has worked with journalists to reveal the secrets he obtained from his work with the NSA, said there will be more revelations. "Some of the most important reporting to be done is yet to come," he said.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT