A new tyranny
Big business is not your friend
As the US and Australian governments got grumpy about their dirty laundry being aired by leaked cables to WikiLeaks, MasterCard and Visa last month chose to block their cardholders from donating money to the whistle-blowing organisation.
A spokesman for MasterCard, Chris Monteiro, was quoted as saying the company's website suspended dealings with WikiLeaks because "MasterCard rules prohibit customers from directly or indirectly engaging in or facilitating any action that is illegal".
There are a number of problems with this statement. The first is that despite the angry rhetoric from embarrassed governments, no one has found a law that WikiLeaks has actually broken, either in Australia, Europe, the United States or anywhere else. What WikiLeaks has done is publish information which it has received from various sources, in the same way that media organisations do every day.
On this precedent, News Limited customers would be barred from using their plastic dosh to pay for newspaper and online subscriptions.
The second problem is that MasterCard and Visa – which are dominant in market share of credit card holders – have trampled on consumer rights by stopping people from being able to choose what to spend their money on.
This is a very slippery slope, when financial institutions are telling people what is and is not appropriate use of their money. Today it is WikiLeaks ... who will it be tomorrow? What will stop MasterCard or Visa going further in future and blocking transactions, wherever they occur, because they believe a product, cause or issue is too politically unpopular or controversial?
If no explicit laws prohibit sending money to a particular cause or organisation – such as those that apply to outlawed organisations like terrorist groups – then there should be no question of impeding Australians' freedom of choice.
Unlike the debate over banking choice, these credit companies have a monopoly on the credit card business – so while Visa and MasterCard can "boycott" WikiLeaks their customers don't have the same freedom.
The key issue here is that consumers have no real choice to move their business if they disagree with MasterCard and Visa's actions.
The situation is already changing, however. The Australian government has had to admit that WikiLeaks has broken no laws. We will have to wait and see whether MasterCard and Visa follow suit. To see the US Government apologise – now that would be priceless.