Oct 25, 2011

The humble credit card is now a political tool

WikiLeaks has been so dependent on the business model 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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


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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22 thoughts on “The humble credit card is now a political tool

  1. Suzanne Blake

    Just goes to show how much power they have over the internet with the credit card and other payment modes

  2. animaldander

    a list of credit unions that can process internet transactions would be useful (Crikey?) what are the alternatives, other than bitcoin (hard for non computer literates). I will happily close my (big 4) bank account and move to any credit union that offers internet banking that does not use visa, mastercard or pay pal.

  3. pk_x

    Proof that the reality of internet communications is far more complex and nuanced than earlier, wildly optimistic theories of total communications globalisation.

    What would happen if Wikileaks urged a boycott of Mastercard/Visa/PP etc? I doubt they would find much support.

  4. Brian Taylor

    Strange how Visa, PayPal and Mastercard have no qualms about transferring funds to the Klu Klux Klan but WikiLeaks is somehow beyond the pale.

    Shameful intervention on the part of the big credit cards.

  5. joanjett

    Interesting how the humble cheque book has come back into vogue after reports of its demise in the 80’s, thanks to the miraculous BankCard. Don’t forget that in Australia our affair with electronic transactions is ubiquitous and long term. When I lived in Italy for many years cash was (and still is) totally king. People look at credit cards with mistrust and it’s clear why. (Incidently that is one of the consequences of why Italy’s governement is having so many financial problems, so many of their small businesses accept cash and then don’t pay IVA on the transactions.) Credit cards make transactions visible to the tax man!
    I got a cheque book when my eldest daughter lost her school fees (cash in an envelope) one term (obviously not at a private school!). I used it as a back up when my debit card was compromised and my bank account was cleaned out recently. They have a system of pre-paid credit cards over in Europe for those who mistrust credit cards but they are issued by Visa & MasterCard (of course!) so no good for poor Wikileaks………..

  6. Hogarth

    As ANIMALDANGER stated…. the only alternative is Bitcoin.

    Fast (send to anywhere on the planet in seconds, first confirmation in ~10 minutes), secure (uses SHA256 and ECDSA) and as anonymous as you want it to be (Run it over the TOR network) and the big one….. cheap (You can send $1 or $1,000,000 for a fraction of a cent).

  7. John64

    Won’t necessarily work Animal. It depends on the channels the payments go through and at some point, usually Visa or Mastercard are involved – they can always use their muscle to shut-down anyone who tries to process their payments through another channel.

    Besides, why do WikiLeaks need so much cash to publish anyway? This is the internet age after all. Seems more like they’re raising money for Assange’s defence fund.

  8. Steven Warren

    John bandwidth cost money.

    When you require enough bandwidth to host most of the worlds political reporters plus hundreds of thousands of casual enquirers the cost is a little higher than your typical home ADSL plan.

  9. Scott

    The irony is that if Wikileaks was based in the US, it would probably have better protections in regards to free speech via the first amendment and it would have been less likely to be cut off by US companies like Visa and Mastercard.
    The only reason the KKK still exists in the US is because of this fundamental right to free speech and political association. Unlike Wikileaks, the clan is a legal entity, based in the US and subject to US laws and regulations so Visa and Mastercard are happy to accept it as a customer, even if, in my opinion, it is pretty dodgy morally.
    Wikileaks believes it is better off in Sweden due to it’s journalism shield laws, but it’s more of a publisher than a journalism site so I think it’s a liability for them. As shown, they can become isolated and hence subject to these sort of boycotts. Whereas US whistleblower sites like the Drudge Report and Mother Jones continue to operate as per normal.

  10. Mark from Melbourne

    Not that I am associating Wikileaks with these organisations, but how do good old fashioned terrorist organisations like the IRA get their donations from their US supporters – or hasn’t Paypal banned them?

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