Commentary: How money-handlers muzzled WikiLeaks

Monday, Nov. 14, 2011

Edward Wasserman – The Miami Herald

A comment posted to London’s Guardian newspaper said it best: “Censorship, like everything else in the West, has been privatized.” The writer, somebody called “edensasp,” was referring to news that WikiLeaks — the online whistleblower that has been embarrassing governments and corporations worldwide by disclosing their secrets — was suspending operations.

Why? Had its leader, the mercurial Julian Assange, been indicted? Had the black choppers swooped in and taken him out? No, nothing that cinematic. It was the bankers. A handful of big money handlers decided they wouldn’t process donations to WikiLeaks, it had exhausted its reserves, and it was going broke.

The fund cutoff started in December 2010. That’s when Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America discovered their patriotic duty. At the time, five of the world’s top news organizations — The Guardian, The New York Times, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel — had begun publishing articles based on a remarkable trove of U.S. State Department cables shared with them by WikiLeaks. The organizations had spent months sifting from among the documents, eliminating those they thought might cause needless harm. They then launched a barrage of articles derived from candid reports from U.S. diplomats that exposed official lies, both our country’s and dozens of others’.

But official lies have their supporters too, and there was a huge fuss. Because the secret cables were American — even if the people whom the secrecy protected often were not — U.S. politicians led the charge against WikiLeaks. Assange was denounced as “a high-tech terrorist,” lawmakers demanded his head, and Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal investigation of his operation.

And so the money-handlers stirred to action. Within days WikiLeaks was under a financial stranglehold, and it now says its revenues dropped from $140,000 a month to less than a tenth that. Why did the companies do it? PayPal, the flagship paymaster of the digital world, said it forbids payments to anything that “encourages” illegal activity, and MasterCard said its “rules prohibit customers from directly or indirectly engaging in or facilitating any action that is illegal.”

Really? “Indirectly facilitating” an illegal act? Think about that. It’s a formulation a second-year law student could tear apart as not just unenforceable, but unintelligible. Doesn’t selling gasoline “indirectly facilitate” speeding? How much of what we consider normal commerce would escape that catchall? Shouldn’t Bank of America require you to apply for your next ATM withdrawal, just in case?

Besides, what was the illegal act that was facilitated? Nobody has suggested the publications that used the material acted illegally. And don’t we normally punish after conviction, not before? (Nearly a year later, WikiLeaks hasn’t even been charged.)

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