Lost in Translation
22 October 2019
Writing for Levick's latest e-book, a guidebook for foreign companies navigating the U.S. regulatory, legal and communications marketplace, Juliet Young explains the art of the possible when it comes to conducting investigations in Europe.
There’s a famous saying that Europe was created by history and America by philosophy. The U.S. is a federal republic of 50 states with a single official language; Europe, a continent of 50 or so sovereign nations with 24 official languages. Of these nations, 28 are current members of the European Union (EU), known for its strong stance on data privacy rights. Culturally, Europeans approach the concept of open-source data and public records from very different places. Some might argue: does this really matter anymore? After all, we’re living in an era of instantaneous global information; an unprecedented volume of open-source data and online records can be accessed just as easily from an Internet café in Indonesia as from an office in Ohio. Meta data, social media content, imagery, and the Dark Net are all at an investigator’s fingertips. Do geographic boundaries still matter? Yes, they do. Those cultural and philosophical differences have given rise to a vast divergence in the breadth, depth, and accessibility of open-source data in Europe and the U.S. With litigation taking on an increasingly international dimension, U.S. lawyers and investigators need to understand the art of the possible when it comes to conducting investigations in Europe. While U.S. legal filings are well organised, and a mine of fascinating information, European legal filings can represent a challenge to even the most sophisticated investigator. It’s not uncommon to find that only a small percentage of cases have been reported and only a selection of filings available. Enquiries to obtain more information are often met with suspicion.
Where European open-source intelligence excels is in the area of private company data. In the archives of most European national company registries, you will find details of shareholders, directors, mortgages, and financial statements. Even “offshore” jurisdictions such as Jersey make shareholder filings public. This data is likely to become more informative with the introduction of E.U.-wide “ultimate beneficial ownership” registers. Under the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive, these are due to be made accessible to the general public starting in 2020. European open sources may seem archaic, convoluted, and, at times, impenetrable, yet there are deep seams of information if you know where to look. In Norway, citizens’ tax records are posted online. In the U.K., you can locate a deceased person’s will through the probate registry. In the Isle of Man, you can find a list of all aircraft searchable by registration or the owner’s name. Malta maintains a detailed database of civil judgements. In Slovakia, you can get a list of all tax debtors and their addresses. In one recent asset search, I identified a chalet held through a Société Civile Immobilière (a French property holding company). The corporate filing provided the name and location of the property, shortcutting a lot of work around French landregistry filings. The key message is that even if you are used to the accessibility of certain data in the U.S., European open-source data, while different, may be just as rewarding. With more corporate data on non-public companies available than in the United States, the key to your case might be filed in an obscure archive — waiting for you to pick it up.
Levick's third eBook, a guidebook for foreign companies navigating the U.S. regulatory, legal and communications marketplace, was published on 21 October 2019.
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