Visa, MasterCard sued for blocking donations to WikiLeaks

​Lawyers representing the credit card processor used by WikiLeaks are suing Visa and MasterCard in the United States over the 2010 banking blockade that kept the anti-secrecy group from receiving funds.

On Monday this week, American attorneys for Icelandic hosting provider DataCell ehf filed suit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in hopes of having a federal judge award the company upwards of $5 million for what it claims was a coordinated attempt between Visa and MasterCard to restrict funding to WikiLeaks after the secret-spilling organization started publishing classified US State Department cables over four years ago.

WikiLeaks’ payment issues began shortly after October 2010, when DataCell and Sunshine Press – the not-for-profit media organization that operates the transparency site – entered into a contract that authorized the Icelandic firm to process the electronic donations expected to quickly come in upon the impending release of the State Department cables.

Contributions to the website were soon stifled, however, when both Visa and MasterCard – who together controlled 95.5 percent of the payment card market at the time – refused to let customers give financial support to WikiLeaks through DataCell.

According to this week’s filing, the major credit card companies acted without legitimacy – but with the urging of American lawmakers – when they prohibited cardholders from giving to WikiLeaks. Because DataCell was entitled to receive five percent of those donations, per its contract with Sunshine Press, both the transparency group and its hosting provider are alleged to have lost significant would-be revenue, according to the complaint entered on Monday.

“The defendants did not have a legitimate economic reason to prevent credit card payments to DataCell,” attorneys for the firm allege, adding that “the defendants' blockade of credit card payments to DataCell, because of its association with Sunshine Press, injured the media market by suppressing the market place of ideas.”

Additionally, DataCell’s lawyers attribute two well-known American lawmakers in office at the time with ensuring that the blockade would be implemented. The release of the State Dept. cables, DataCell’s lawyers allege, “angered a great many people in the United States government,” particularly Rep. Peter King (R-New York), the current chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Joseph Lieberman, an independent who served in the US Senate through 2013.

“To punish Sunshine Press and try to put it out of business as retribution for disclosure of the State Department cables, Lieberman and King instructed their respective staffs to contact defendant VISA and defendant MasterCard and demand that they block individuals from donating money to Sunshine Press,” DataCell’s attorneys say. Indeed, it’s acknowledged later in the complaint that MasterCard admitted to the European Commission in 2011 that the company had been, in fact, contacted by both congressmen with concerns about Sunshine Press.

According to DataCell’s lawyers, Visa and MasterCard’s actions together violated a Sherman Anti-Trust Act statute, Virginia Anti-Trust Act statute, and a federal law prohibiting “Tortious Interference with Business Expectancies and Contract.” A fourth count in the complaint, civil conspiracy, alleges that the credit card companies “conspired with each other, Lieberman, and King to tortuously interfere with DataCell’s economic advantage.” As a result, the law firm representing DataCell says the court must enter judgment in an amount to be proven at trial in excess of $5 million; Visa and MasterCard have 21 days to issue a response.

In 2013, DataCell won a similar case before the Iceland Supreme Court in which it was determined that local credit card payment processor Valitor had wrongfully prevented WikiLeaks from receiving donations.

"This is a victory against the rise of economic censorship to crack down against journalists and publishers. We thank the Icelandic people for showing that they will not be bullied by powerful Washington-backed financial services companies like Visa. And we send out a warning to the other companies involved in this blockade: You're next,” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in a statement at the time.

Previously, WikiLeaks said that banning the website from being funded poses the risk of setting “a dangerous, oppressive and undemocratic precedent,” and serves as “an existential threat” to the organization. It has continued to publish secret documents since the blockade went into effect in 2010, but the source of the State Department cables and other material shared by the site, Chelsea Manning, was arrested six months after those files were published and is now serving a 35-year prison sentence.

Meanwhile, another case related to the WikiLeaks blockade in the Eastern District of Virginia largely wrapped this month. On December 5, Judge Liam O’Grady sentenced four individuals connected to the hacktivist movement Anonymous over a 2010 cyber campaign in which Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America, and other entities were targeted in a coordinated effort that sought to take their websites offline. That campaign, 'Operation PayBack,' is alleged by the government to have been undertaken by Anonymous because the targets conflicted with the hacktivists’ “stated philosophy of making all information free for all.” One of the 13 defendants in that case, Dennis Owen Collins, has similarly been charged in the Northern District of California for attempting to take PayPal.com offline when that company began blocking donations to WikiLeaks as well. In the Virginia case, co-defendants and federal agents alike have both testified in court that the investigation into 'PayBack 13' concerned the WikiLeaks scandal and attempts to use distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attacks to take opponents of the website off the internet.