Government agencies in Australia are reaping big benefits by exposing vast volumes of valuable but otherwise lazy and hidden public information for free through the Open Data movement.
And then there’s the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC).
The Australian financial and markets regulator on Monday called for registrations of interest for the right to operate its highly lucrative registry operations that charge businesses and the public substantial fees for obtaining corporate information which companies are required to provide to it.
The move to outsource – or effectively lease-out the corporate registry cash cow – comes as a growing rift over who owns public emerges between older-style advocates of public sector contestability with the commercial sector and more progressive Open Data advocates who believe public information and data needs to remain freely accessible to maximise its potential to generate new efficiencies, innovation and wealth.
Such is the value of ASIC’s registry holdings and its commercial operations that the Abbott government has retained international investment bank Greenhill to handle the transaction, a move generally reserved for substantial divestments or privatisations.
According to public notices placed by the Department of Finance, registrations of interest are now being sought “from parties considering participation in the competitive tender process for the right to upgrade and operate [the ASIC Registry] and to develop and sell value added products and services…”
While few doubt there will be strong interest for the business, it is understood there is growing unease among state governments seeking to get a firmer data-driven grasp of business activity within their borders.
While ASIC has firmly set out that “The Government will retain ownership of the Registry’s base data” a growing concern is that handing the holdings exclusively to a private operator could sacrifice future innovations in favour of sweating the price of access to ASIC’s holdings that amount to 10 million records.
Those records span corporate and professional registers and include both the Companies Register and Business Names Register as well as millions of financial disclosures.
According to Finance, the government is seeking to “explore the capacity of the private sector to operate the Registry, invest in the Registry’s systems and enhance user experience.”
As the tender process roll on, opponents of the registry sell-off both within the public sector and private industry are understood to be have started a rear guard lobbying effort to ensure that information becomes easier and cheaper to access rather than more expensive.
Some Abbott government Cabinet Ministers have already voiced their opposition to the sale of ASIC data over making it freely available, including Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
In March 2014 Mr Turnbull broadsided ASIC and other government agencies that commercialised access to public data via paywalls calling the practice “really regrettable” and saying that “as a matter of principle, I don’t think the government should be charging the public for data.”
“Obviously these are tough and troubled times from a budgetary point of view – and there will be all sorts of contractual issues – but really, the productivity benefits from making data freely available are so much greater than whatever revenues you can generate from them,” Mr Turnbull said at the time.
Since then the Communications Minister has obtained a mandate through the Digital Transformation Office to put government information online, however ASIC remains conspicuously out of the Open Data fold thanks to the apparent on-market cash value of selling its data holdings.
The deadline for Registrations of Interest for participation in the competitive tender process to operate ASIC’s registry has been set for 27th July 2015, with interested parties instructed by Finance to contact Greenhill for documents.
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