Rundle on WikiLeaks: the humble credit card is now a political tool

by Guy Rundle  – Tuesday, 25 October 2011

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has announced that the organisation again will start accepting submissions of leaked material via its website on November 28, a year to the day from the release of the Cablegate material.

However, Assange told a press conference at London’s Frontline Club, the organisation will also be suspending its publishing activities immediately, so that it can fully focus on contesting the comprehensive banking and credit blockade that was imposed on it at the time that the Cablegate publication began.

And he warned that the very existence of the organisation was at risk: ”If WikiLeaks isn’t able to break the blockade, we will simply not be able to continue our work beyond the new year.”

Until November last year, donations could be made to WikiLeaks via Visa and Mastercard, Paypal and Western Union. But these were cut off almost immediately when publication of the Cablegate archive, following State Department pressure on the companies concerned — companies that, it must be said, were far from reluctant to comply.

WikiLeaks’ chief press spokesman Kristin Hrafnsson flashed some graphs and noted that WikiLeaks’ donations had gone down by 95% when the blockade was put in place, from an average of about €100,000 a months to about €6000.

For the next months, WikiLeaks’ principal activity would be the pursuit of litigation via regulatory bodies in Iceland, Denmark, and the EU in Brussels, and Australia and Britain. The most promising, according to Hrafnsson, was an anti-trust suit in Brussels, which could force the European courts to issue an injunction against the credit cards and major banks, forcing them to lift their blockade.

Much of the campaign will hinge on the argument that the payment blockade raises issues that extend far beyond WikiLeaks. The consolidation of banking systems and payment processes has given a handful of payment systems a near monopolistic control over day-to-day transactions across the world.

Assange noted that the issue was ultimately one of individual rights — the ban was not merely on WikiLeaks “but on anyone who wanted to contribute to WikiLeaks, and to affiliate with it in that way”. It was a restriction on anyone who wanted to “vote with their wallet”.

Furthermore, it was also an issue of sovereignty. Since 97% of transactions now go through the big two credit cards, and Paypal, the effect is that US corporations control the day-to-day economic interactions between two people in another country entirely.

Indeed, the fix WikiLeaks is in points to a double paradox of the rise of the internet, and more particularly, the web — the manner by which liberating processes and applications quickly take on a near-monopoly status. Credit cards were fairly marginal to key commercial processes until about 25 years ago, and the idea that we would freely and easily send our financial details zipping over the wires to unknown recipients would have been greeted with howls of laughter.

Once they become central, however, not only do they vastly expand their range of operations, but they also make other methods seem impossibly arcane. Thus, it is still possible to donate to WikiLeaks by a dozen or so different bank transfer processes, etc, as its website makes clear — the source of the donations it does get.

But what would have once been second nature — making a bank transfer, or writing a cheque to support a cause — has become almost impossible to bother with. The monopoly form of the internet has so reshaped our habits, as to change our very notions of time and tasks, of turning the specific acts of a task, into a form of active dissuasion.

WikiLeaks, as much as anyone, has been dependent on the business model that has been built up during the commercialisation of the web — that all one needs to do is get people people to hit the “confirm payment” button — that the withdrawal of such became a political tool.

Thus the net/web is both, as is endlessly celebrated, a device for openness zero cost global communication and organisation, flattened hierarchies, etc — but also the greatest tool for the centralisation of power that the world has yet seen. WikiLeaks’ mission, is, in part, to make that centralisation visible and contest it — so inevitably the manner of attacking relied crucially on using the monopoly power of financial transaction, which is heavily linked into the US state.

Tonight, as the story of the organisations’ potential demise raced around the world, there was a degree of support for it from mainstream media quarters — perhaps because they are all heading for a digital era in which credit and debit payment for media will be universal, and feeling their own necks as regards the control of such credit agencies.

Some were sceptical as to whether the suspension of publishing was in part a response to running out of material, due to the submission system being down for many months — but WikiLeaks claims to have more than 100,000 documents ready to roll. Even The Guardian ran a supportive article of sorts, by James Ball — a former student of Guardian investigative reporter David Leigh, who fell out bitterly with Assange in the Cablegate period. Ball subsequently left WikiLeaks, wrote some tell-all stories about the inner workings of the group, and now has a full-time position with The Guardian.

Yet even here, the paper can’t get itself sorted out on Assange, with Esther Addley, the correspondent covering the press conference, writing that WikiLeaks was “facing” legal action in eight countries — rather than instigating it. Elementary incompetence, but par for the course it would seem.

As regards the re-booting of the submission system — designed to be completely anonymous, so that not even WikiLeaks knows who has sent material in — Assange argued that the previous architecture was manifestly inadequate, attributed to the failings of the agencies certifying public encryption, due not least to their infiltration by spy agencies of various nations. A new submissions system had taken so long to complete, because it had to bypass these processes altogether.

Whether it will be in operation for very long, or there be any chance to distribute the material gained, will depend on donation and litigation. And all this may well be interrupted by Assange’s possible, even likely, extradition to Sweden, for further questioning on s-x crime allegations. But those who believed that WikiLeaks was finished after Cablegate do not appear to have reckoned with its determination to carry on at all costs. Indeed, its new submission system may well be in place before dissident site “OpenLeaks” opens for business, a year after its foundation was announced.

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