The cartography of Acme Corporation and why it matters

When OpenOil approached me with the proposal to contribute to their partnership with OpenCorporates and map out the global corporate structure and subsidiary hierarchy of BP plc, one of the world’s largest oil and gas company, I was enthusiastic. To attempt such a project with a small group of people was as much an methodological experiment as it was an attempt to set standards that would provide not only civil society and its socio-political activists, but also governments and corporations, with a tool that could enable more transparency and accountability – what OpenOil founder Johnny West refers to as “systematic public oversight of big companies”.

We were successful at our BP plc corporate cartography project, since we mapped out 1180 subsidiaries in over 80 countries in only matter of weeks, which evidences the immense potential of open data in ensuring corporate transparency.

What may not be clear to you, the reader, is why does mapping out a corporation matter. The first point to consider is that there are no doubts that some corporations have immense economic clout, not only the at national, but also at the global level. Mapping out a corporation clarifies how it interacts with the world’s economy. I intentionally shy away from the term ‘international’, especially in relation to trade and commerce, and prefer to employ the term ‘global’ instead because, although it is incontestable that commerce and trade occurs between nation-states and their companies, business nowadays has quickly spread beyond the territorial and regulatory limitations and oversight of singular nation-states. What I mean by that is whereas we once spoke about multinational corporations (MNC), contemporary corporations have continue to adopt and develop legal embodiments that move beyond that the multinational in order to reach a truly global scope. Global corporations spread their structure like mangrove trees, which drop their roots from their branches, latching on to national territorialities because they are fertile grounds that allow them to optimize their accumulation of capital.

The second point why mapping out corporations is important is the fact that, despite the efforts in recent years by international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and civil society and consumer groups to render corporations more and more transparent, these have intensified their political clout as well. Mapping out a corporation clarifies how it influences the world’s politics. Consider that in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations and trade unions can employ treasury funds for direct advocacy – to be clear, to spend as much as they wished on advertising, but not direct contributions to candidates or parties – in order to endorse and/or call out civil society to vote for or against specific candidates in federal elections. More recently, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that no limit should apply to corporations’ campaign contributions, although there continue to be limitations on how many funds an individual candidate may receive from corporations. This allows corporations to spend as much as they want across a wide spread of candidates in parallel, since they are not allowed to spend as much as they want on a specific candidate yet. It is particularly interest that the Supreme Court’s majority decisions, in both cases, were established upon the understanding that to continue to impose such limitations would infringe upon constitutional protections for freedom of speech of corporations.

The third point, which can already be concluded from the two prior points, is that state and corporate structures are profoundly intermeshed, both economically and politically, and mostly at the level of individuals, similar to two buildings that are internally connected by some “revolving doors” of sorts. Mapping out corporations clarifies who are the economo-political elites that, many times in a conflict of interest, decide politics so as to benefit certain economic interests and direct certain economic interests to decide politics. Close scrutiny evidence how politicians become lobbyists and lobbyists become businesspeople, in an endless cycle that is global in scope.

For these reasons (i.e., economic and political clout, lobbying efforts, contributions to the political campaigns, and continuous moves back-and-forth between governments and industry)), the attempt to render corporations and their activities more transparent needs to very seriously consider their actual legal embodiment. When there is an attempt to create public awareness about a particular corporation, let us say, the Acme Corporation featured in the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons, we tend to represent Acme as a monolithic and indivisible entity, to ensure that the general public can easily identify the company that should concern us. However, to be able to act against the Acme Corporation’s history of defective products, transfer mispricing, tax evasion, governmental bribes, social and environmental negligence, and other practices of corruption, we have to understand it and act on it in terms of what it actually is: a corporate hierarchical structure, global in its extension, legally embodied by hundreds of subsidiaries, crisscrossing through national jurisdictions, tax regimes, and banking systems, simultaneously investing millions upon millions in the stocks, bonds, and other securities of corporations across the world by way of the global stock market.

I was enthusiastic about the project because of my own research, which focuses on state and corporate policies and practices to exert control over information and communications. The project represented an opportunity to better understand the nature of the legal structures of corporations in their entirety. After we finished it successfully, I became even more convinced that – in order to strengthen our political agency as civil society as well as our economic agency as consumers – we need to strengthen our public oversight over big companies. If we are to do so, we have to understand how to render corporations transparent in systematic detail. More so than many other industries, corporations dedicated to the extractive industry are secretive, but the potential of collecting and establishing relations between publicly available information they have published themselves cannot be underestimated.

The methodological success of our project – its most experimental – was the fact that we did not have to be experts on BP plc, its activities, and/or economic and political interests, in order to thoroughly map it out. OpenOil’s presentation at Berlin’s re:publica 2014, a conference focused on social media, blogging, and digital, demonstrated with a practical example that members of the audience could map out a smaller corporate branch of BP in under an hour – sixty minutes, which included the time required for explanations on how to do so. The methodological standard our project was able to set evidences, without reservations, that mapping out a corporate giant like BP plc, with its more than twelve hundred subsidiaries, only requires a small group of committed individuals and some weeks of methodologically sound collection and analysis of readily available public data.

OpenOil and OpenCorporates are trailblazing in directions of transparency and accountability that everybody who is interested can also venture forward into, and that matters very much, especially as more and more civil societies have access to open data and public records on the Internet.

I have no doubts that Wile E. Coyote is absolutely thrilled.

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