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Iceland and Beyond

Economic Blockade and WikiLeaks

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Julian Assange had been using that term for a time, but economic censorship is as close to the mark as any.  If you want to shut someone up, deprive them of funding, cut off the supply, hope they go quietly into the night, hopefully without breaking too many things on the way.  The whistleblowing conduit has, since its document releasing bonanzas of 2010, been blockaded.  Opponents of WikiLeaks have been attempting to blackball not merely the outfit but its operations in every conceivable way.

Contractual obligations with financial providers have been repudiated. The actions by such companies as Visa and MasterCard has led to a 95 per cent fall in revenue.  Last Wednesday, Iceland’s Supreme Court begged to differ on the wisdom of such decisions, claiming that MasterCard’s local partner, Valitor, had illegally terminated its contract with WikiLeaks’ payment processor, DataCell.

This was not as big a surprise as it might have been – a district court in Reykjavik had made a similar ruling last year, followed by the threat of a fine.  Card holders, the court claimed, could not be deprived of their entitlement to make contributions to the site.

Valitor, the bench warned, would be fined 800,000 Icelandic krona ($6,824) per day if the gateway was not reopened within 15 days.  Assange himself was buoyed, which is saying much since he has not had much to cheer of late.  “We thank the Icelandic people for showing that they will not be bullied by powerful Washington-backed financial services companies like Visa.”  For the WikiLeaks front man, the “economic blockade” has been nothing less than a censorship device that “threatens freedom of the press across Europe”.

The tune Assange is playing may sound tedious, but there is little doubt that pressure by U.S. heavyweights has been a feature behind the financial decisions over the last two years. European Commission documents released by WikiLeaks show that various figures on the hill had been busy getting the ear of those working for MasterCard.  MasterCard Europe conceded that Senator Joseph Lieberman and Congressman Peter T. King had “conversations” with the organisation in the United States. Lieberman had boasted of being instrumental behind Amazon’s cutting of service to WikiLeaks.

Both have form.  King as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee was beavering away at the prospect of having WikiLeaks designated a terrorist organisation, with its members termed “illegal combatants”.  (On that score, the U.S. Treasury rebuffed King’s suggestions that WikiLeaks be placed on a blacklist – there was no evidence to warrant such action.)  Senator Lieberman misspent his time seeking to prosecute the New York Times for espionage in connection with the WikiLeaks releases.

Then again, in the crude one-dimensional world of finance, WikiLeaks found itself facing glacial commercialism and lawyers keen to read the microscopic fine print. After all, if the politics of leaking can’t be monetised, they won’t be interested.  As a public-relations specialist told Seattle’s KIRO News, “I don’t think you mix politics with retail,” a comment made specifically about Amazon’s assistance to WikiLeaks during the holiday season.  But such is the wisdom of a business civilization – freedom has its financial value.

This was certainly confirmed by the actions of Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Western Union and Bank of America, who all undertook extrajudicial action to block donations to WikiLeaks.  Their “terms of service” had, so went the unconvincing argument, been violated.   This was all a bit rich, given that the release of cables by WikiLeaks has only been given the rhetorical smear of being “illegal”.  Formal charges have never been laid – either in terms of Assange’s own alleged sexual misconduct or for the actual release of the documents.  That did not stop the caretaker Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard from making statements on WikiLeaks’ “illegal” actions that were swooped upon by MasterCard as probative of guilt.

The decision in Iceland is significant, but whether Assange can set this as a precedent remains unclear.  WikiLeaks functions on permanent contingency, risk, surprise and the not so distant prospect of doom.  Action is being undertaken in Denmark against Visa’s subcontractor there, with the hope that a European wide trend will be instigated.

The position in the EU has also been contradictory, which makes predictions regarding the decision of the European Commission over the subject of economic blockade sensitive. Last November, the European Parliament made it clear that it wanted to prevent the arbitrary imposition of economic blockades on entities or organisations without due process.  The thrust here is that what is being done to WikiLeaks might well be done to other organisations.

To that end, the MEPs considered “it likely there will be a growing number of European companies whose activities are effectively dependent on being able to accept payments by card; [and] considers it to be in the public interest to define objective rules describing the circumstances and the procedures under which such card payment schemes may unilaterally refuse acceptance.”

The European Commission, however, gave the cold shoulder to WikiLeaks’ claim that Visa, MasterCard and American Express had violated European antitrust legislation.  It took 15 months of dawdling, only to then claim that no full investigation was needed. WikiLeaks is still pressing them to reconsider.  In the meantime, a few shining lights – Daniel Ellsberg, John Cusack and John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – have created the Freedom of the Press Foundation for anyone willing to make anonymous, tax-deductible donations to Assange and company.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com