Corporate Privacy is Alive and Well

we-the-corporations02-e1294670618870Recent revelations about the electronic surveillance programs of the federal government, which are being carried out with the cooperation of large telecommunications and internet companies, show that personal privacy rights are in serious peril.

Much is being said and written about the discrepancy between the seemingly invincible status of the Second Amendment and the disintegrating Fourth Amendment. Yet the more significant contrast may be between individuals and corporations with regard to privacy and protection from government intrusion.

Despite all the complaints from business groups about the supposedly overbearing Obama Administration, large corporations have it pretty good. This is especially the case in the matter of taxes.

Although the finances of publicly traded companies are supposed to be an open book, firms are not required to make public their tax returns. This allows them to conceal the inconsistencies between what they disclose to shareholders and what they report to Uncle Sam. The recent report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about tax dodging by Apple showed there was a $4.4 billion discrepancy between the FY2011 tax liability presented in the company’s 10-K annual report and what it listed in its corporate tax return (which the committee had to subpoena).

Revelations about Apple and other tax dodging companies has not resulted in any action by Congress. The European Union, by contrast, is moving ahead with a transparency initiative that will thwart tax avoidance and illegal financial flows.

Anti-corruption and pro-transparency groups in the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition have been pressing the Obama Administration to support a plan, backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, to require the registration of owners of shell companies—a move that would make illicit financial transfers more difficult. The idea will be discussed at the upcoming G8 summit, but there is little indication that Obama, much less the U.S. Congress, is prepared to sign on to Cameron’s “transparency revolution.”

Large corporations enjoy a great deal of privacy with regard to state as well as federal tax liabilities. Publicly traded companies are required only to disclose aggregate figures on the taxes they are paying (or not paying) to the states overall, making it impossible to get a clue on how much dodging is going on in individual states. Although there have been efforts at times to compel publicly traded companies to make public their state tax returns, those documents remain as private as their federal returns.

Corporate financial statements are also usually devoid of any information on the billions of dollars companies receive each year in economic development subsidies from state and local governments. There has, however, been progress in piercing the corporate privacy veil in this arena, but it is mixed.

At the state level, disclosure is better than it has ever been, but there is a great deal of inconsistency from state to state and from program to program within states. Much of the transparency progress relates to grant and low-cost loans, while the tax breaks—which are often the big-ticket items—lag. Fewer than half the states post a significant amount of information online about corporate tax credits.

And as my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First showed in a recent report, disclosure is even more primitive among most large cities and counties. All the disclosed data is collected in our Subsidy Tracker search engine.

Taxes and subsidies are not the only areas in which corporate privacy remains strong. There are also serious limitations, for example, in what companies have to reveal about their labor practices. Even publicly traded companies are providing less and less in their 10-K annual reports about collective bargaining. Reading the 10-K of Wal-Mart, for instance, you would never know that it has fought tooth-and-nail against unions and is now facing a non-traditional organizing campaign. Whether they are sympathetic or not to the goals of the campaign, shouldn’t shareholders at least be told that it exists and what the company is doing in response?

As poor as the transparency rules are for publicly traded companies, they shine in connection with the absence of significant requirements with regard to privately held firms. The secrecy afforded to family-controlled mega-corporations such as Koch Industries and Cargill is a serious public policy problem.

While companies such as Facebook and Google claim to be sympathetic to the concerns of their customers about government surveillance, they continue to enjoy a higher level of privacy. Corporations have been aggressive in asserting First Amendment rights equivalent to those of natural persons, but when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, they seem to be ahead of us humans.

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