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TED Prize winner: Rip veil off corporate criminals

By Richard Galant
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 0646 GMT (1446 HKT)
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.

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