Wikileaks, Credit-Card Companies, and Complicity

I was interviewed last night on CBC TV’s “The Lang & O’Leary Exchange” about Mastercard and Visa’s decision to stop acting as a conduit for donations to the controversial secret-busting website Wikileaks. [Here's the show. I'm at about 15:45.] (For those of you who don’t already know the story, here’s The Guardian‘s version, which focuses on retaliation against Mastercard by some of Wikileaks’ fans: Operation Payback cripples MasterCard site in revenge for WikiLeaks ban. )

Basically, the show’s hosts wanted to talk about whether a company like Mastercard or Visa is justified in cutting off Wikileaks, and essentially taking a stand on an ethical issue like this.

Here’s my take on the issue, parts of which I tried to express on L&O. Now just to be clear, what follows is not intended to convince you whether you should be pro- or anti-Wikileaks. The question is specifically whether Mastercard and Visa, knowing what they know and valuing what they value, should support Wikileaks’s activities.

I think that, yes, Mastercard & Visa are justified in cutting off Wikileaks. And I don’t think that conclusion depends on arriving at a final conclusion about the ethics of Wikileaks itself. The jury is still out on whether the net effect of Wikileaks’ leaks will be positive or negative. Likewise it is still unclear whether Wikileaks’ activities are legal or not. And who knows? History may be kind to Wikileaks and its front-man, Julian Assange. The question is whether, knowing what we know now, it is reasonable for Mastercard & Visa to choose to dissociate themselves. I think the answer is clearly “yes.” The key here is entitlement: the secrets that Wikileaks is disclosing are not theirs to disclose. They don’t have any clear legal or moral authority to do so, and so Mastercard & Visa are very well-justified in declaring themselves unwilling to aid in the endeavour.

One question that came up in last night’s interview had to do with complicity. Is a company like Mastercard or Visa complicit in the activities of Wikileaks? The answer to that question is essential to answering the question of whether the credit card companies might have been justified in simply claiming to be neutral, neither endorsing nor condemning Wikileaks but merely acting as a financial conduit. I think the answer to that question depends on at least 3 factors.

  • 1. To what extent does Mastercard or Visa actually endorse Wikileaks’ activities?
  • 2. To what extent does Mastercard or Visa know about those activities? and
  • 3. To what extent does Mastercard or Visa actually make Wikileaks’ activities possible? That is, what is the extent of their causal contribution? Do they play an essential role, or are they a bit player?

In terms of question #1, it’s worth noting the significance of the particular values at stake, here. Wikileaks stands for transparency and for publicizing confidential information. Visa and Mastercard stand for pretty much the exact opposite. Visa and Mastercard, like other financial institutions, are able to do business because so many people trust them with their financial and other personal information. And so the credit card companies are, of all the companies you can think of, pretty clearly among the least likely to be able to endorse Wikileaks’ tactics, whatever they think of the organization’s objectives.

It’s also worth noting the significance of the notion of “corporate citizenship,” here. That term is widely abused — sometimes it’s used to refer to any and all social responsibilities, broadly understood. But if we take the “citizenship” part of “corporate citizenship” seriously, then companies need to think seriously about what obligations they have as corporate citizens, which has to have something to do with their obligations vis-a-vis government. Regardless of how this mess all turns out, the charges currently being bandied about include things like “treason” and “espionage” and “threat to national security.” These are things that no good corporate citizen can take lightly.

6 comments so far

  1. ARC on

    Please also answer your three questions in regard to the KKK. Is it responsable for a “corporate citizen” to be involved in such a racist organization?

    Besides, Wikileaks is not interested in publishing credit card numbers of private persons, or even what they do with their money. They are however interested in the ethical behavior of “corporate citizens”. An ethical behaviour that they have shown to be severly lacking.

    And as a furhter note: We believe we are living in a democracy and in a democracy not the governement, but the judicial powers decide if something or someone is a terrorist organistion. Since the jury is still out on that and the Governement of the US has not made a single thing stick about Wikileaks, it sounds more like a cave in to me. Not very ethical behaviour if you ask me.

  2. [...] backlash continues. I suggested here two days ago that Mastercard was probably justified in ceasing to act as a conduit for donations to Wikileaks. I said that, at very least, it’s not surprising that a company whose business depends on its [...]

  3. ADHR on

    In addition to ARC’s points, as well as the various critiques of VISA, et al, that are floating around on the web, I think it should be noted that there actually is clear legal and moral authority for Wikileaks to publish as it has been publishing. If I get my hands on some information, freedom of the press seems to grant me clear authority to publish it. It may be that whoever got me the information did so illegally or immorally, and it may be that I did something illegal or immoral in obtaining it. But, as far as has been made clear, Wikileaks was simply handed some information, and has chosen to publish some of it. That strikes me as being as clear a case of freedom of the press as there can be, which constitutes prima facie justification in Wikileaks’ favour and against VISA, et al.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Freedom of the press is not carte blanche. Knowing x does not automatically give you the right to tell everyone x. Counter-examples abound. Rights come with responsibilities, including the responsibility to exercise judgment.

    But again, I’m not arguing for a final conclusion on Wikileaks — just that there is sufficient doubt about the ethics of Wikileaks’ behaviour to warrant caution on the part of the credit card companies.

  5. emirjame on

    In a civilized society a person, company or organization is innocent until proven guilty in a court. The fact that the USA government has not brought Wikileaks to court yet, despite the publishing of documents since a couple of months may well indicate that nothing unlawful is going on from the site of Wikileaks.

    The fact that Paypall, Mastercard and Visa have nevertheless halted payments to the organization does harm to their credibility as reliable payment systems. Customers worldwide will start looking for alternatives that do not try to make moral/ political decisions for them. The government of Iceland is even looking if they can revoke the banking license of these companies.

    I think other governments and businesses would be wise to also look into this. I think Paypal/Visa/Mastercard have clearly overstepped the boundary between their work and the responsibility of others. Making socially acceptable and responsible judgments, convicting people or organizations and then punishing them is not their task.

    It all boils down to this: They can cut Wikileaks off without any formal justification – so how much service do they guarantee companies and organizations?? And if services are cut of without court procedure, where can those that don’t agree appeal??

  6. [...] December 9th, 2010 Wikileaks, Credit Card Companies and Complicity [...]


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