Many journalists in Quebec use enterprise database OpenCorporates while doing their work.

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.

By Alexandra Bosanac

Since their roll-out into bars across Quebec in 1994, video lottery terminals have pulled in millions of dollars a year for Loto-Quebec: some estimates put it at $800 million. But suspicions around government oversight of the machines — which are not dissimilar from the digital slot machines that are ubiquitous in Las Vegas — had been mounting for years, prompting Montreal’s La Presse to investigate.

The first step for La Presse web producer Thomas de Lorimier was to determine the number of businesses holding video lottery terminal licenses in the province — more than 2,000, as it turned out, and concentrated in some of Quebec’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The next task was to find names. For that, he turned to OpenCorporates, an enterprise database.

Quebec is becoming a powerhouse of investigative journalism, with journalists churning out story after story about organized crime and government collusion; stories that are undoubtedly of national importance. And they’re doing so in spite of an ever-frosty political climate. Many use OpenCorporates while doing their work.

But now they face another hurdle: the Quebec Enterprise Register is seeking to limit the information journalists can access on OpenCorporates.

Open data helps journalists take on complex and far-reaching stories

U.K.-based OpenCorporates hosts an open database that tracks the corporate governance structures of over 100 million companies in jurisdictions spanning the globe. It does this by “scraping” data — the act of using  a computer program to automatically harvest data from websites — from publicly available data contained in business registries around the world.

At a glance, you can see how one company is connected to another. That’s made possible by the site’s special feature that allows users to search by company director — its primary value for researchers. Compare that to the Quebec register, which has over a million companies in its store and is structured in a way that makes it practically impossible to see how companies are connected.

Open data helps journalists take on complex and far-reaching stories. A perfect example is La Presse’s Michener Award-winning series, which showed the province ignored instances when bars violated regulations intended to protect patrons from addiction, and exposed ties to organized crime.

“It only took a few minutes for a computer to find each of those company names in OpenCorporates’ database, via their application program interface, which returned each company’s info, including the names of its administrators,” explains de Lorimier over email.

“We then manually double-checked thoroughly those matches in the Québec Enterprise Register, and in comparison, that took a couple of weeks to do.”

Approximately two months after the publication of the first story in the La Presse investigative series, OpenCorporates received a letter from the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity asking it to “cease all use, including distribution and publication, of data from the enterprise register for business purposes,” stating that only the registry has the authorization “to hold the register and make the register accessible to the public.”

OpenCorporates complied and has stopped updating its site with Quebec data, which it began collecting in 2012. It’s now seeking a declaratory judgement on the matter, not only to resume operations, but to gain clarification about how a third party can be barred from using data that is openly accessible.

By doing this you’re clearly protecting the bad guys

Chris Taggart, co-founder and CEO of OpenCorporates, is stumped.

“It doesn’t make sense on many levels,” said Taggart. “The optics of this is so bad. Why on earth would you do this? By doing this you’re clearly protecting the bad guys. There’s a lot of public harm to doing this,” he said.(He’s careful to add he hasn’t seen any evidence   the La Presse investigation prompted the letter.)

CBC-Radio Canada, which had also been scraping the register, launched its own suit against the ministry. A spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

In response, the ministry that oversees the register said it would review the policies governing third party access. However, François Blais, minister of employment and social solidarity, said he trusted the register’s officials interpretation of the policies governing access to information.

“Our understanding is that this decision is true to what the law prescribes: only the registrar can keep that record. One can imagine that at one time, we did not want these data to be used in an inappropriate way,” Blais told La Presse in April.

When contacted by J-Source, a spokesperson for the minister said the review was still ongoing, with the intent of identifying other “possible avenues of solutions,” in accordance with the statutory privacy principle, “which provides a precise framework for the collection of personal data.”

The government’s stance has Canadian media law experts vexed. Brian Rogers, a lawyer based in Toronto, said that Quebec draws on civil law — common law is practiced in the rest of Canada — as well as its own charter of rights and freedoms. The laws in Quebec are more similar to the European Convention on Human Rights, which offers expanded protections around privacy.

“It’s unquestionably a different legal regime,” said Rogers. “Relative to the rest of Canada, privacy is a more important legal concept and value that has affected the decisions of courts in Quebec.”

In theory, he added, it shouldn’t impact access to information that’s made public by the government are intended for public access.

Who knows the kind of stories journalists will miss?

But not all watchdogs in the province are concerned. According Karim Benessaieh, who has been covering the civil dispute between OpenCorporates and the province for La Presse,  the story doesn’t appear to be on many people’s radar.

“Other than two stories we ran, it did not have a big impact,” said Benessaieh.

As a journalist, Benessaieh is confident he and his colleagues will find workarounds even if the restrictions are never lifted. “OpenCorporates is one tool of many tools we use … we can still use the register and we do, regularly.”

But given the impact of the Panama Papers, it’s clear the public’s desire for investigative journalism has been renewed. Data journalists also caution that working with an incomplete data set can drastically alter outcomes and lead to untold missed connections. If access is rolled back, even slightly, who knows the kind of stories journalists will miss?

To its credit, the province created an open data portal in 2012 containing databases from a cross-section of ministries that citizens and journalists alike could draw on without having to file a Freedom of Information request. But it wasn’t particularly meaningful data, said Roberto Rocha, a data journalist for CBC Montreal.

“It was very safe data. You can’t expose mismanagement with that data,” he said. “It was for things like species of trees in national parks, waterways, which could be crossed with other data,” and might yield something mildly interesting, but “nothing that has any real significance.”

The register’s data was not part of that initiative even though “it was the one that was very loudly requested,” said Rocha.  “The REQ is critical — there’s so much in there.”

Indeed, according to Taggart, Quebec data is OpenCorporates’ most requested in all of Canada. That’s likely because there was more data on view to begin with — at least before the ban. Despite its reputation for secrecy and opacity, Quebec outperformed  other provinces in making business data openly available, according to OpenCorporate’s own analysis.

In its filings, the lawyers for CBC-Radio Canada argue that the register’s actions are a clear violation of the freedom of the press. Taggart isn’t certain it’s deliberate

“I’ve worked with part of government … some parts of government like what we’re doing, other parts are quite antagonistic,” he said. “Maybe they’re doing it because they don’t understand it or they’re embarrassed by it, playing into the snow-washing effect. Or maybe they have ulterior motives. I couldn’t say. The result is the same.”

Because of the La Presse investigation, the Ministry of Public Security clamped down on video lottery terminals, instituting a zero-tolerance policy for bar owners who defy  the law. The ministry has also committed to withdraw 1,100 terminals from bars and to mothballing 375 new ones.

De Lorimier credits OpenCorporates with allowing him and his colleagues  to speed through the early stages of the project by quickly mapping the corporate structure they eventually described in the series.

In a post-Charbonneau era, politicians in the province are reaffirming their commitment to transparency. But without access to complete data, it will be harder to produce work that meets the calibre of La Presse’s investigation — and it will certainly be harder still to hold members of government to the new standard they’ve set.

Alexandra Bosanac is a journalist based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, the National Post, the CBC, and Canadian Business magazine. Follow @alexbosanac.