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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 […]

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.