Much of the debate surrounding Wikileaks's release of confidential cables sent by US diplomats to their bosses in Washington D.C. has revolved around whether the whistleblowers' website is right or wrong to have selectively released some 1,000 of the 250,000 state department cables it has in its possession.
There are many inside the US establishment – both in politics and in the media – who are furious, apoplectic even, that Wikileaks and its director Julian Assange (who has since been jailed in the UK and, bizarrely, detained without charge) should have embarrassed Uncle Sam by divulging some of its secrets. And many of the revelations have been distinctly embarrassing for the US as well as for some of its allies and enemies.
The US “patriots” now seem determined to shoot the messenger, and as I write they are scrabbling to find legal means of snuffing out Wikileaks and bringing Assange to justice – even though they cannot quite agree what crime he has committed!
What is striking about the whole saga is the way in which the mood in Washington (and among some of the suppliers to Wikileaks) seemed to turn much nastier and more vindictive after Assange threatened to lift the lid on Enron-like behavior by a major US bank.
Assange told Forbes that Wikileaks proposes to release information on:
“You could call it the ecosystem of [financial] corruption … But it’s also all the regular decision-making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that’s not done, the priorities of executives, how they [fulfill] their own self-interest.”
In an earlier interview with Computer World in October 2009 Assange said Wikileaks was “sitting on 5GB from Bank of America” - and speculation has been swirling that this is the bank on which Wikileaks has information, perhaps relating to its subprime subsidiary Countrywide or its "messy" 2008 acquisition of Merrill Lynch.
The bank certainly seems worried. It has even set up what it calls as a 'War Room' to pre-empt the possible data strike.
Before Assange’s suggestion that he might bring down a bank, only a few maverick right-wingers had been threatening to kill him. Immediately a bank became involved, Wikileaks-phobia went mainstream.
Within hours Amazon had forced WikiLeaks off its servers and several other US corporations including PayPal (owned by eBay), Mastercard and Visa had joined in the economic blockade. It was fairly obvious someone in Washington D.C. was pulling the strings.
Personally, I found their behavior disappointing, even nauseating, and suspect that in the long term it will be harmful to their brand image. As the Guardian puts it, organizations like PayPal are trying to have it both ways,
"...pretending in their marketing that they are free spirits and enablers of the cyberworld, but only living up to that image as long as they don't upset anyone really important. At Amazon there is real confusion between the two roles: it refused to host WikiLeaks but continued to sell an eBook of the leaked cables online."
It's as if Virgin decided that rather being a branché brand for the baby-boomer generation, it really existed to do the bidding of the Swiss government or something.
The financial journalist Nick Kochan wrote on Index on Censorship that whoever is masterminding the economic blockade of Wikileaks is “using the same tactics as those who target terrorist groups". And this despite the fact that it is not known to have broken any laws and is, after all, widely recognised as just another media outlet seeking to expose the truth!
So far, attempts to muzzle Wikileaks have proved counter-productive. Following a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyber attack on the main site, hundreds of “mirrors” of the WikiLeaks site - such as this one - sprouted up around cyberspace. And an Anonymous group of internet "hacktivists", operating under the banner Operation:Payback, has retaliated by using DDoS attacks of their own to shut down the websites of several of the companies that have blocked Wikileaks, including Visa and MasterCard.
They used the same illegal technique that was used against Wikileaks in late November. However, Wikileaks has distanced itself from Operation:Payback saying it had no links to the cyber attacks.
Agence France Presse reported that Wikileaks had in fact been strengthened, thanks to the Streisand effect, whereby attempts to censor information online leads to it being replicated in many places.
While some mainstream financial brands have been prepared to risk their reputations by doing the US government's bidding, a younger one, Philadelphia-based Xipwire, is still accepting donations to Wikileaks and presumably gaining positive publicity in the process.
Wikileaks is fighting back in other ways. On December 8, the Berlin-based Wau Holland Foundation, which raises funds for Wikileaks, declared it is taking legal action against PayPal for blocking WikiLeaks's accounts and is also suing PayPal for libel after the payment company accused Wikileaks of being engaged in "illegal activity."
Separately Datacell, a Swiss-based IT company which assists Wikileaks with the acceptance of online credit card donations, is suing Visa Europe and Mastercard. Interesting times!
Whoever wins in this gripping and highly divisive battle between what might be deemed transparency and continued state secrecy, the saga is likely to have long-lasting repercussions for how financial firms are perceived, how they behave, how they defend their web presences and IT networks, as well as how they market themselves.
Further reading on online payment and the merits of transparency and free speech:
- Improving Corporate Profitability Through Accountability by Marc J Epstein and Priscilla Wisner
- A blow for free speech, or the end of free speech? by Anthony Harrington [blog post]
- Internet payment system, QFINANCE dictionary definition
Tags: payment systems , transparency , US , Wikileaks