Quebec government in court battle over distribution of public data

Quebec government in court battle over distribution of public data

MONTREAL — A website owned by a U.K.-based company is fighting the Quebec government in court for prohibiting it from collecting public information on firms in the province and then making it available to help thwart fraud and other crime.

OpenCorporates.com claims to have public information on 125 million companies in 120 jurisdictions. It is petitioning Quebec Superior Court to declare it can legally collect, publish and distribute the public data found in the province’s business registry.

The provincial government is contesting the petition but said Monday it is sensitive to OpenCorporates’ concerns and is reviewing its law.

Journalists around the world have used OpenCorporates to write articles on fraud and money-laundering, such as the recent Panama Papers scandal, which exposed how multinationals hide cash in offshore tax havens.

Jean-Noe Landry, who does not work for the website but has been asked to speak on behalf of the U.K company, said Quebec is the first jurisdiction in the world to refuse OpenCorporates access to its public data.

“Quebec is the only government that has used the argument, ‘We’re already making the data available publicly, but we don’t want you to reuse it,'” said Landry, the head of Open North, an open data non-profit company.

In OpenCorporates’ court filing, the company says its database was used by Montreal La Presse journalists to write stories about how owners of Loto-Quebec’s video lottery terminals were not abiding by provincial rules and about “the lack of enforcement of these rules by relevant authorities.”

The company said it was contacted by the Quebec government in November 2016 — a month after the stories ran — “for the first time in the four years that OpenCorporates had been active in Quebec and (was told) to ‘cease all use, including distribution and publication of data.'”

Landry said he thinks Quebec’s opposition comes from the fact the website also provides “more advanced analysis” of data for a price.

Francois Lefebvre, spokesman for the Employment Department, said in an email that accessing Quebec’s business registry “has to be done with respect to the principle of protecting personal data in accordance with the law.”

“The minister is sensitive to the issue that has been brought up by diverse groups,” Lefebvre wrote. “He has therefore asked the department to review the law in order to determine possible solutions, while respecting the applicable principles. The review is ongoing.”

In response to a question regarding how exactly OpenCorporates is breaking Quebec law, Lefebvre said he couldn’t provide any more detail as the matter is before the courts.

Landry said Quebec’s reaction to OpenCorporates’ use of its data runs contrary to the government’s publicly stated desire to be a leader in the field of information technology.

“If Quebec wants to claim some sort of leadership role on digital issues and openness, I’m not sure it has that reputation,” said Landry. “Or it’s not helpful in advancing that image of itself as a leader on transparency if it creates these hurdles for these kinds of initiatives.”

Quebec is also facing a lawsuit from Radio-Canada claiming the limits being placed on business registry searches violate freedom of the press.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press
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