Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Cablegate: Visa and MasterCard face legal problems over WikiLeaks blockade

by Steve Ragan 

After more than six months of preparation, WikiLeaks and DataCell are moving forward with a lawsuit, looking to end the financial blockade brought by Visa and MasterCard. According to WikiLeaks, Visa Europe, MasterCard Europe, and Teller are the three businesses highlighted by the complaint.
“…U.S. influenced, financial blockade…”
On December 7, 2010, DataCell announced to the world that Visa Europe suspended their accounts due to them processing donations to WikiLeaks. They were asked to stop processing donations in exchange for service restoration, but DataCell refused, explaining that the request to do so was based on untrue and unverified accusations.
A day later, DataCell’s payment processor, Teller, started suspending all Visa transactions through DataCell, on the request of Visa Europe. The reasoning behind Visa Europe’s request was to “investigate the case in order to protect the Visa brand name; and to make sure neither payment processor nor Visa Europe is doing illegitimate transactions to fund the WikiLeaks website.”
For those same reasons, Teller suspended DataCell’s MasterCard account as well. The block on DataCell has prevented them from collecting WikiLeaks-related donations, as well as collecting payments via credit card for other services, including their primary business as a data center and hosting provider.
“… [Visa] is clearly an attempt trying to undermine WikiLeaks through financial mean. This is not about the Visa brand name. This is about politics. Visa should not be involved in it (sic),” DataCell said in a statement.
In March, Teller said that they found nothing wrong with DataCell’s processes within the legal framework governing the credit transactions. They asked that Visa Europe, as well as MasterCard Europe, allow them to reopen DataCell’s accounts. Visa Europe refused, and MasterCard’s stance is unknown, but it is understood that they were working with Teller on the matter.
However, the fact that DataCell was still unable to process payments led them to announce the hiring of a legal team in Iceland, Denmark, and U.K. “…to present our case in the courts.”
“Our goal is to get the justice fulfilled. We believe it's our right to conduct businesses in a legal way just like any other companies. The legal opinion we have got from our law firms and legal professors around the western world is, simply, Visa behaves like the worst kind of mafia with their behaviour…It's not in the hands of Visa to decide what is illegal and what's not.”
When speaking to Icelandic media, DataCell’s founder, Olaf Sigurvinsson, added to his company’s statements.
“…I can support Al-Qaeda, the Ku Klux Klan, buy me a weapon, drugs and all kinds of porn with a Visa card…while I can not support human rights organization which campaigns for freedom of expression.”
Actions that are in “…violation of EU competition laws …”
On Saturday, WikiLeaks announced that the firm of Bender von Haller Dragested in Denmark and the Reykjavik Law Firm in Iceland warned both Visa and MasterCard that if the U.S. influenced financial blockade “…is not removed they will be litigated in Denmark and a request for prosecution will be filed with the EU Commission.”
“It was pointed out to these companies that their coordinated action on December 7th last year to block all credit card transactions to WikiLeaks and DataCell constituted a serious violation of the Competition Rules of the EU (Article 101(1) and 102). Furthermore, that the actions of these companies have violated Danish merchant laws when they terminated the payment services and by refused to reinstate them,” the lawsuit announcement said.
“Visa Europe, Master Card Europe, Teller and Korta where told that if the payment services would not be reinstated and liability for the damages accepted, DataCell and WikiLeaks would file a complaint to the European Commission regarding violation of EU competition laws and file a lawsuit with Danish Maritime and Commercial Court”
Visa and Master Card, with 70-percent and 25-percent market share respectively in Europe, hasn’t shown any willingness to negotiate a settlement, according to the lawsuit notification. Mirroring DataCell’s statements from March, the notice explains that Teller is willing to reinstate services, but they have been ordered by Visa Europe and MasterCard not to do so.
“In light of this outcome DataCell and WikiLeaks will instruct their international legal team to take actions against these companies in the coming days…”

Tightening the financial vise…
In separate statements to The Tech Herald last December, when asked about the blocks, Visa Europe explained it was dropping payments to WikiLeaks “pending further investigation into the nature of its business” and whether it contravenes Visa operating rules. MasterCard simply stated the suspension would remain “until the situation is resolved.” What that situation is exactly wasn’t explained.
However, the financial attack on WikiLeaks didn’t just come from the credit card industry.
Post Finance, a well-known Swiss bank, was one of the first financial institutions to target WikiLeaks. They did so by closing the account of Julian Assange. After they announced to the world what they had done, the bank wound up facing investigations and public criticism for violating secrecy laws.
On their company blog, eBay-owned PayPal said that WikiLeaks’ access was “permanently restricted... due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.”
PayPal is the only company, despite there being no charges or evidence that says otherwise, that has openly suggested that WikiLeaks promotes or facilitates illegal activity.
Bank of America (BoA), one of the world’s largest financial institutions, said last December that they too would join Visa Europe, MasterCard, PayPal, and Post Finance, declaring they would “not process transactions of any type” that they had reason to believe would go to WikiLeaks.
“This decision is based upon our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments,” BoA explained.
Towards the end of 2010, as the financial giants each took to the press to declare WikiLeaks an enemy of the state, the public became split on the issue. Some were supportive, while others condemned them for their actions.
The public outcry came to a head when Anonymous shifted gears, moving Operation: Payback from its focus on the RIAA, MPAA, among others, to those that were targeting WikiLeaks.
As a result, Anonymous launched a series of Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal, for freezing WikiLeaks’ accounts and withholding money, as well as Post Finance, Visa and MasterCard.
In the aftermath of those attacks, scores of people in the U.S., U.K., and EU, were raided by law enforcement, and several others arrested for their involvement. In addition, there have been other law enforcement actions, including raids on data centers to seize equipment.
…is a different type of Distributed Denial-of-Service attack
In each example, the financial giants revoked access due to something that has never been proven in any court of law. To this day, most of the public and media has ignored the irony:
The moment they revoked financial access to WikiLeaks, these five organizations were starting their own DDoS attack against WikiLeaks.
This DDoS attack impacts the way WikiLeaks can collect donations, and like other forms of DDoS, it denies innocent consumers the ability spend their money as they wish. Given the freedom stripped from consumers, one would think this would be a rather large issue, but its gone ignored for the most part. Perhaps that is because WikiLeaks supporters are in the minority.
The issue is one of financial freedom. The world over, consumers will find it hard to use a debit or credit card issued from a bank without it coming from MasterCard or Visa. Unfortunately, when one signs the customer agreement forms, they agree to abide by the credit card company’s terms. This means if Visa, MasterCard, or banks like BoA, wish to restrict how you can spend your money - as is the case here - they are well within their rights to do so. It is all in the fine print. The question is, do you as a consumer think this is fair?
It’s a holiday weekend in the U.S., and spokespersons from the EU were unavailable at the time this story was written. We’ll update with new information on the lawsuit and any comments as we get them.



More lenders granting new credit cards

Consumers who worked diligently to reduce debt during the recession could now be on a more sound financial footing and interested in obtaining a new credit card. Fortunately for them, many financial institutions are increasing their lending for new accounts.

The value of new credit card accounts being issued by lenders rose by more than 35 percent on a year-over-year basis in March, according to the latest monthly statistics from Atlanta-based credit monitoring firm Equifax. This increase is due both to the number of new accounts being issued and the value of those accounts, as competition between banks for new borrowers has prompted most to increase the lines of credit on these accounts.

In addition, financial institutions are also slackening requirements for other lines of credit and therefore increasing the amount they lend across all products, the report said. Overall, the amount consumers borrowed during the monthly rose more than 15 percent over March 2009 to $167 billion.

However, consumers who worked diligently to avoid credit card debt during the recession may have changed their spending habits, and may only want to use a new credit card account sparingly.


Credit Cards Without Foreign Transaction Fees


If you’re planning a trip outside of the United States this summer, you might want to think hard about what credit card you bring along. The list of cards that have eliminated foreign transaction fees, which tack up to 3 percent onto your purchases, is growing, and using the right card can save you money on your vacation.
The latest entry to the field is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The card carries no foreign transaction fees and is offering a bonus of 50,000 rewards points if you spend $3,000 in the first three months. The card has a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived for the first year.
The Sapphire card joins Chase’s existing offerings that don’t charge the annoying fees, including its British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt Card and the Priority Club Select Visa Card.
Capital One offers several cards with no foreign exchange fees and no annual fee as well; card comparison site has a list.
Citigroup has eliminated the charges on its ThankYou Premier and ThankYou Prestige cards. And American Express doesn’t charge the fees on its Platinum and Centurion cards.
An analysis by Cardhub showed that using credit cards with no currency conversion fees save consumers an average of 7.9 percent when compared to exchange rates offered at banks and 14.7 percent when compared to airport exchange services. Even if you are stuck with a card that charges the fee, you’ll still come out ahead using plastic, the survey found: You’ll save 4.9 percent on average and 11.7 percent, compared to banks and airport currency exchange services, respectively.