Allowing corporations to arbitrarily bankrupt law-abiding people or organizations with whom they disagree, poses a significant threat to free speech.
The whistleblower Web site WikiLeaks—whose publication of leaked classified documents has exposed the corruption of some of the world’s most powerful governments—is being muzzled by a handful of financial institutions, according to the organization’s founder.
On Monday, Oct. 24, Julian Assange announced that WikiLeaks has been forced to suspend publication to focus its energy on urgently needed fundraising due to what he termed an “illegal blockade.” He told reporters that WikiLeaks has relied on cash reserves to fund the past 11 months of operations due to the refusal of Bank of America, PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, and Western Union to process donations, starving the organization of 95 percent of its revenue stream. He added that WikiLeaks, with a staff of about 20 employees, needs $3.5 million to stay afloat through 2013.
The blockade was enacted last December, just days after WikiLeaks, in concert with the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and El Pais, published a small fraction of some 250,000 classified US state department cables. The news outlets that actually published the cables suffered no halts in payment.
This financial blockade, if left unchallenged, will likely affect more than just WikiLeaks. Trevor Timm, an activist and blogger for the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently explained to TechNewsWorld, “The financial blockade is a free speech issue,” adding, “WikiLeaks has not been convicted of — or even officially accused of — a crime by the United States. In fact, it’s clear to most First Amendment experts that they’ve done nothing illegal.”
In January, House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner demanding that WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange be added to the Treasury’s Specially Designated National and Blocked Persons list, a move that would have banned U.S. companies and individuals from doing business with the whistleblowing Web site. It’s essentially an economic blacklist that blocks financial dealings with suspected terrorists and drug traffickers who make up the majority of the list.
At the time, Assange accused King of trying to enact an embargo “on the truth.” Treasury ultimately refused to comply with King’s demands and released the following statement: “We do not have evidence at this time as to Julian Assange or WikiLeaks meeting criteria under which [Treasury] may designate persons and place them on the [sanctions list].”
When I contacted PayPal about the reason behind its refusal to process WikiLeaks donations, its media representative referred me to a December 2010 statement by PayPal general counsel John Muller, which reads: “Ultimately, our difficult decision was based on a belief that the WikiLeaks website was encouraging sources to release classified material, which is likely a violation of law by the source.”
Investigative journalist James Ball points out the blatant contradiction of this rationale in the Guardian. He writes:
Visa, MasterCard and PayPal are none-too-choosy about who they provide payment services for. Want to use your credit card to donate to the Ku Klux Klan? Go right ahead. Prefer to support the English Defence League? PayPal will happily sort you out. Prefer to give cash to Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, who oppose the “radical homosexual agenda”? Feel free to use your Visa, Mastercard or Paypal.
Bank of America’s reason for cutting off WikiLeaks may have an element of retaliation. Last November, Bank of America’s stock plummeted 3 percent after WikiLeaks claimed to possess internal Bank of America documents. In August, former WikiLeaks co-spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was fired from WikiLeaks last year and has since created the rival organization OpenLeaks, told Reuters that he destroyed those documents in August.
I contacted Bank of America, Mastercard and Western Union for comment, but did not hear back. Visa declined to comment.
Whether you support or detest WikiLeaks is irrelevant. The fact remains that WikiLeaks, as Timm points out, has not been charged, prosecuted or convicted of any crime in any court in any part of the world, makes this financial blockade tantamount to an extrajudicial stifling of free speech.
Yet these payment companies continue to single out WikiLeaks. Vesting private corporations with the power to arbitrarily bankrupt law-abiding people or organizations with whom they disagree, is detrimental to free speech.
At Monday’s press conference, Assange told reporters, “If this financial attack stands unchallenged, a dangerous, oppressive and undemocratic precedent will have been set, the implications of which go far beyond WikiLeaks and its work. Any organization that falls foul of powerful finance companies or their political allies can expect similar extrajudicial action.”