Keep data on national company registries open and searchable

Waltraut Ritter says that, given the complexities of today's intertwined companies, national registries must remain open to cross-border searches

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 March, 2013, 6:51am


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As one of the most efficient e-services provided by the Hong Kong government, the Companies Registry regularly receives awards and recognitions. The e-Registry service in particular is popular, with around 2 million website visits per year.

The existing system for accessing and using the registry data, however, is limited, and not designed on open data principles which enable queries beyond simple company searches. There is also still a charge for searches, although the collection and data management is already paid for in the course of the agency's normal business. So why is a public agency "double-charging" for information?

As a trading fund, the registry generated HK$216.6 million profit after tax last year, some of which will be invested in service enhancement programmes. One of the biggest improvements could be to waive the search fees to increase usage.

This is what the New Zealand Companies Office did in 2007. Adopting an open data policy and having no fees makes delivery [technology] easier and less expensive, argues the New Zealand registrar. Similarly, the UK Companies House recently removed search fees on director appointments, and is likely to waive other fees to increase economic value from the reuse of public information assets.

So, amid the discussion about the new Companies Ordinance in Hong Kong, perhaps it is time to review the organisation's readiness for an increasingly open and connected knowledge-based economy.

Open company data was the basis for mapping connections between companies in the horsemeat scandal in Europe, which resulted in striking visualisations of a well-organised, cross-country supply network of illegal activities by companies with mutual shareholdings and directorships.

Such analysis was expensive and time-consuming before registries started to open up their datasets to enable broader queries on patterns of ownership and director searches across national boundaries.

OpenCorporates, an information service aiming to build the largest non-proprietary database of the corporate world, has collected over 50 million records of companies across the world. Many countries still score low on open access to company data even when comprehensive public information policies are in place.

The global economy is dominated by highly intertwined companies with complex ownership and control structures, which enables them to be "everywhere and nowhere", making it difficult for stakeholders to understand governance structures. National company registries need to develop information sharing structures suitable for searching across jurisdictions, so that it only takes one click to get the full picture of a company wherever it is registered. This is one of the reasons why it is critical for the Hong Kong Companies Registry to keep the full Hong Kong identification number as an identifier.

In preparing for the new Companies Ordinance, the registry might rethink its role in the global economy and embark on a real service innovation, not only providing a world-class public service in e-readiness but also in open data readiness.

Waltraut Ritter is managing director of Knowledge Dialogues, conducting research on the knowledge economy. She serves on the government's Digital21 Strategy Advisory Committee