Wikileaks exposes corporate cowardice
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
LONDON — Will Visa Europe prevent its clients from subscribing to the Guardian? Will Mastercard allege it can’t handle payments to the New York Times because its behavior is “illegal?” That would be ridiculous. Yet the two credit card giants have been the latest to cut off Wikileaks for supposed unlawful behaviour in what looks like a pandering to U.S. sensitivities. This is hardly taking a stand: they don’t go against the two influential newspapers — or their equivalent in France, Spain and Germany — which published the contents of the 250,000-odd U.S. diplomatic cables. It is corporate cowardice.
Visa Europe, which split off from the U.S. parent company before its 2008 initial public offering, and Mastercard follow the likes of PayPal, the eBay subsidiary, and Amazon, which also stopped servicing Wikileaks because of alleged breaches in their terms of service. This rush to please the U.S. government — which will enchant a few other western powers as well — is disturbing. In the absence of any legal decision — and even, so far, of any legal action — against the Wikileaks cables disclosure, the only possible explanation is that the companies thought the controversial website would be a convenient and relatively weak scapegoat that would allow them to stay on the safe side of the dispute.
One can only wonder at the sudden shock felt by all these companies when they came to the view they were part of an illegal conspiracy to shake the world to its foundations. A Swiss bank even went so far as cutting off the account of the Wikileaks founder, presumably because he gave the wrong address. As everyone knows, giving an exact and precise address is what Swiss banks have always demanded from all their customers.
Hackers are now having a field day wreaking havoc on the websites of the companies taking part in Wikileaks’ boycott. This is the price these firms have to pay for forgetting a basic rule: in a market economy, don’t rub customers the wrong way.