Why WikiLeaks Is Raising Money Using MasterCard and PayPal Again

Julian Assange is back to asking people for credit card donations, but the benefactors may not know where their money's going

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Remember when PayPal, Mastercard and Visa stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks because it leaked secret State Department cables? At the time Julian Assange blasted the firms as "instruments of U.S. foreign policy" because the move cut off one of the organization's major sources of fundraising. But over the past few weeks, the logos of PayPal, MasterCard and Visa have quietly returned to WikiLeaks and the site is back in the business of asking supporters to send money its way.

So, did the firms that cut WikiLeaks off last year have an about-face? At the time, MasterCard pulled the plug in a huff, claiming its rules "prohibit" customers from taking part in "any action that is illegal." PayPal responded in kind, saying its policy is to ban an organization from using its services if it "encourages, promotes, facilitates or instructs others to engage in illegal activity."

WikiLeaks used to raise much of its funding via online payments in its signature  "Keep Us Strong" campaign. The new campaign (which features the same pensive photograph of Assange) is advertised as the "WikiLeaks Defence Fund." Notice the corporate logos back on display:

From there, any interested donors go to a page on Facebook running a Fundrazr app re-titled the "Julian Assange Defense Fund." From there money is sent via PayPal, MasterCard or Visa "to pay Julian's legal expenses"  via a fund administered by the accounting firm Hazlems Fenton LPP,  the page reads. Conveniently, the Fundrazr app lists a running, real-time count of how much has been collected:

So far 787 people have donated £25,005.50 or roughly $40,800.The fund has been promoted on the WikiLeaks site since at least February so if this is what a typical online fundraising month looks like, the organization could be taking in around $500,000 via its web site. The organization has alternative, though less convenient, means of collecting money--it accepts donations via bank transfer, checks mailed to a post-office box in Australia, or credit-card payments processed by a company called Datacell. But if the last month of fundraising is typical, the total suggests the organization, which has a reported annual budget of at least $1.1 million, cannot live off its online tip jar alone. And you're welcome, Julian: £5 of that is from The Atlantic Wire when we tested if the payments were being processed. Here's a copy of our receipt.

But it's not exactly clear if that's where this money is going. On WikiLeaks, where it's the top-promoted method for giving on the "Donate" page, one could easily get the impression that one were giving to WikiLeaks the organization and not just to Assange.  As it stands, donors have no way of knowing. The direct recipient is a London accounting firm called Hazlems Fenton, whose home page touts its skills for clients in fashion or sports. The link to terms of the fund is broken and leads to an error page on the website of Assange's legal team of Finers Stephens Innocent LLP, where his British defense attorney Mark Stephens is a partner.

The biggest legal headache Assange is currently facing stems from accusations of molestation and rape in Sweden. Assange was arrested in London on an international warrant related to these charges. Assange himself said he had already spent $310,000. He, has, of course, found other sources of income. He signed a book deal with publishers Alfred A. Knopf and Canongate in late December worth more than $1 million. It's not clear that he sees a distinction between his personal problems and his organization. “I didn’t want to write this book, but I have to,” he told the Sunday Times. “I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat."

Though there is scant description of the fund's purpose via Wikileaks, we did get some more information. It looks like it's the same legal defense fund that Stephens opened in December for Assange to pay his legal bills. Update: Susan Thackeray, head of litigation at Finers Stephens Innocent, has confirmed that we were correct; they are the same funds.The terms of the fund stress three important points: the money in the fund "belongs" to Assange; it "may only be used for Julian's legal defence"; and if there's money left over at the end of litigation, the money may go to "non-profit bodies which have freedom of speech or freedom of information as a principal aim," which sounds a lot like WikiLeaks.org.

So, it looks like the £5 we donated is now the personal property of Julian Assange, though it could eventually end up funding WikiLeaks. We reached out to MasterCard, Visa and PayPal for comment. A spokesperson from PayPal said the new fundraising campaign fell within its acceptable use policy because it is designated for Assange's personal defense fund. "PayPal’s policy allows for designated entities to raise funds for the legal defense of individuals," a company spokesperson writes. "The Julian Assange Defense Fund is raising funds and processing payments using PayPal. The site has been doing so since February."

There you have it: companies like PayPal are more comfortable handling donations to accused rapists than to whistle-blowing web sites.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.