How much would you pay for an offshore tax haven in the Cayman Islands? Without the slightest hint of irony, Paolo Cirio says he’ll sell you one for 99 cents.
Cirio isn't a troll — he's more what you might call an information performance artist. His works, like "Face to Facebook," which "stole" public profile pictures and then posted them onto a fake dating website, borrow heavily from the realm of PR sensationalism. And for good reason: like renowned culture-jamming provocateurs The Yes Men, his almost-plausible schemes, no matter how absurd or exaggerated, always seem to illuminate something critical about privacy, politics, and the way we look at data as it exists within different contexts.
His latest provocation is Loophole For All, a website which claims to have hijacked the identities of tax-dodging corporations registered anonymously in the Cayman Islands. Visitors are invited to "steal" companies' accounts through official-looking certificates, sold for a measly 99 cents in something Cirio describes as democratizing the art of corporate tax fraud. Thoroughly researched, the scheme leaves behind a trail of questions. After all, why can't normal people exploit the same loopholes that allow multinational corporations to pilfer billions from government coffers? Like any good fiction writer, Cirio tells lies to reveal the truth. But instead of the printed page, his medium is the internet itself.
"These days the truth doesn't produce any change."
"I feel that these days the truth doesn't produce any change. People tend to adapt to injustice and absurdity," Cirio tells The Verge in an email. "However, when concrete reality arrives, it is tough and it hurts — like a hurricane flooding your house, or working just to service your debt or discovering your privacy no longer exists." At a time when Wikileaks infodumps already make massive caches of government secrets readily available, Cirio’s goal is not just to produce raw data but to "simulate that shock of the concrete apparition of the truth before people get hurt for real."
In this case, the "hurt" is very real, though largely unseen. Offshore tax havens are one of the most insidious tools in today's global economy, and their use has increased exponentially over the past decade. 83 of the Fortune 100 companies in the US currently rely on them, masking banks and multinational corporations like Barclays, Apple, and Facebook from regulators, in many cases allowing them to avoid taxation entirely (Google, for one, avoided a record-breaking $2 billion in taxes last year by moving funds through a shell company in Bermuda).
As such, these offshore centers play a key role in the budget sequesters and austerity measures that threaten the well-being of citizens in Europe and the United States — in 2011, a report from the Tax Justice Network estimated that illegal tax evasion had cost 145 countries (comprising 98% of the world's GDP) a total of $3.1 trillion. As a result, multinationals like Shell Oil devastate the environments and local economies of the developing countries they're based in with virtually no obligation to compensate for the mess.
"Outdated laws and means of legislating are outstripped by technological development."
"I found it interesting that some of those offshore centers are hubs of the global trade but in terms of legislation and governmental infrastructure, basically in the Middle Ages," says Cirio. "The world is always changing faster because of the development of technology and connectivity, but global governance is slow and unprepared. That is the origin of most legal loopholes today. We see the same situation with privacy and copyright issues, where outdated laws and means of legislating are outstripped by technological development."
Cirio's own plot, however, was short-lived. The Cayman Islands' corporate registrar issued a press release a few days later, reassuring the media that there had been "no interference" with their online registry system — even before, a look at their website shows that the data Cirio claimed was public-facing, copied and pasted onto the false certificates. But for Cirio's purposes, the deception is more of a political demonstration. His stunts serve to bathe a larger injustice in the harsh light of day, and in doing so, reveal the raw power of information simply by shifting it from one setting to another.
Cirio's mock certificates, 200,000 in total, may not actually entitle you to tax-free lifestyle. But as part of the project's physical installation, they’re part of the fiction he has created, meant to produce awareness and give materiality to the shock that sometimes comes when data suddenly changes places. "People still get confused about the value of information when it's on a screen, on the Internet, or distributed in unexpected way," says Cirio. "Sometimes it’s underestimated, sometimes it’s overestimated. But the reaction is just as important as showing what is invisible to common perception."