Quebec’s corporate register wants its collected data taken offline

Government argued in court Wednesday that OpenCorporates, a website that enables easier search within the registry, is breaking the law.

Screengrab of homepage for OpenCorporates, which makes it easier to search Quebec's Registraire des entreprises data and has been used in money laundering investigations.

Screengrab of homepage for OpenCorporates, which makes it easier to search Quebec’s Registraire des entreprises data and has been used in money laundering investigations.

A Quebec Superior Court judge is being asked to decide whether Quebec’s Registraire des enterprises has the power to order a private company to stop using public data gathered from the Registraire’s website.

OpenCorporates maintains a searchable database of information on businesses around the world, data it gathers from government’s corporate registers.

Because its database is international and easily searchable, OpenCorporates has become a popular tool for journalists — including at the Montreal Gazette — investigating things like international money laundering and the links between numbered companies and organized crime figures.

But the Registraire says its use of Quebec data is illegal. The Registraire maintains that it’s the only organization legally allowed to have a copy of Quebec’s corporate registry.

While OpenCorporates stopped gathering data from Quebec’s corporate register in 2016, when the Registraire ordered it to stop and changed the terms and conditions on its website, it is seeking a declarative judgment establishing that the Registraire can’t control how it uses the data it has already gathered.

On Wednesday, Superior Court Justice Karen M. Rogers heard arguments from OpenCorporates’ lawyers as well as the Quebec government, the second day in a two-day trial.

One of the issues is that OpenCorporates allows users to search for an individual’s name and find out if that individual is an officer or director of a corporation.

While the Registraire’s website contains that information, users can only search by the name of a corporation or by a corporation’s registration number.

The Registraire’s website also only allows for users to search for one company at a time.

“Money laundering is essentially a global industry and one that uses networks of companies around the world and it’s not just money laundering, it’s what’s behind the money laundering: it’s corruption, it’s fraud, it’s organized crime, it’s drug cartels,” OpenCorporates CEO Chris Taggart said. “In that context, to basically say, you can look at one company at a time … you don’t get to see the names that are appearing in common between the Panamanian register and the Quebec register, for example, this is, frankly, creating a wide open playing field for crime and for bad actors.”

In court, Louise Comtois, the government’s lawyer, argued that the lack of an ability to search by an individual’s name is intentional.

The purpose of the registry is to find out who’s behind a specific company, not for people to do searches to find out how many companies Tony Accurso owns, she said.

Because people are required by law to give personal information to the Registraire, it has a duty to protect that information, she said.

Only certain government agencies with investigative power — the list of those agencies is confidential — are allowed to search by name.

Also at issue is the fact that OpenCorporates sells some of the data it obtains. The company, which is based in London, England, is a public benefit company — a for-profit company that has a social mission.

While searching its database is free, it sells structured data to banks, insurance companies, credit bureaus and governments.

The Registraire also sells some of the data it holds — a marketer could buy a list of restaurants in Montreal from the Registre, for example, though that list would not include information about individual directors and officers.

The Registraire maintains that OpenCorporates’ sale of Quebec registry data is illegal.

Taggart said he was surprised when the Registraire ordered OpenCorporates to stop using its data — the first request of this nature the company had ever received.

It came only weeks after the Quebec government asked OpenCorporates to update Quebec’s ranking on the Open Company Data Index — a joint initiative of OpenCorporates and the World Bank that measures the transparency of corporate registers — because the Registraire was making more data available through a governmentwide open data initiative.

But Taggart says that if the Registraire’s interpretation of the law is correct, anyone who downloads that data is breaking the law.

In February, the Registraire won a lawsuit filed against it by Radio-Canada, which had sought to force it to allow searches by an individual’s name.

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