Why Visa and MasterCard Briefly Funnelled Money to Wikileaks

A corporate hiccup briefly ended Visa and MasterCard's financial blockade

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During a rare 12-hour window yesterday, WikiLeaks received "five-to-six digit figures” in donations from card holders of MasterCard, Visa and American Express, according to Andreas Fink, the CEO of DataCell, the payment provider for WikiLeaks. But Visa put the kibosh on that his morning according to Visa Europe spokeswoman Amanda Kamin, in an email statement. "An acquirer briefly accepted payments on a merchant site linked to WikiLeaks. As soon as this came to our attention, action was taken with the suspension of Visa payment acceptance to the site remaining in place." Since December, the major U.S. credit card firms had stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks, after it leaked thousands of classified U.S. State Department documents. So it was unusual when headlines began swirling yesterday that MasterCard and Visa had begun processing donations to WikiLeaks again.

That all got started by Fink who originally reported that MasterCard, Visa and American Express had begun processing donations from cardholders on Thursday, following a joint threat by DataCell and WikiLeaks last week to take the credit card firms to court in Denmark. "We choose to interpret this, as that Visa and Mastercard has in fact given in to our demand that the payment services was reinstated." But that wasn't the case. Sveinn Andri Sveinsson, an attorney for DataCell and WikiLeaks in Reykjavik confirmed with Bloomberg that Visa "terminated the contract with DataCell for payment processing this morning." In a statement from Fink this morning, he pledged to pursue legal action against the credit card companies following the re-imposition of the blockade. "DataCell regards this action on behalf of VISA as a clear sign that they are not willing to solve the situation. Therefore has DataCell accompanied by WikiLeaks instructed it's lawyers to file a complaint to the European commission next week."

So how did the mix-up happen? Fink tells The Atlantic Wire DataCell was able to funnel funds to WikiLeaks because it found a new payment acquirer, Valitor, which didn't prohibit the acceptance of donations on behalf of WikiLeaks. But following the headlines that MasterCard and Visa were processing payments to WikiLeaks again "Valitor terminated our contract with immediate effect that closes all cards," he said. It appears Valitor has buckled under the same anti-WikiLeaks pressure felt by the other financial companies. Sveinsson tells Forbes that DataCell is now including Valitor to its complaint with the Icelandic Financial Authority. Up until December, DataCell took donations for WikiLeaks through a different payment acquirer named Korta. But after the organization released thousands of classified U.S. State Department cables, Korta terminated its relationship with DataCell.

It's a dizzying process by which WikiLeaks gets the money it needs to stay afloat. But it's clearly vital to the organization's longevity. Recently, its founder Julian Assange has been getting creative with how he raises funds for the organization, including writing a book for $1.7 million haul, though that project is being delayed, and raffling off seats at lunch with him. Assange claims the financial blockade on WikiLeaks by the credit card companies has cost his organization $15 million. While it's difficult to confirm that figure, clearly having the biggest firms on board is crucial.

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