Friday, December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks, Subprime Lenders, & "Government Pressure"

Anyone following the WikiLeaks story knows that the website itself has been as much on the run as its principals — and now, with Assange in the custody of the British authorities awaiting extradition to Sweden, perhaps even more so. Amazon recently gave the boot, the site recently lost its .org domain name, and if you're interested in supporting the WikiLeaks organization, PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa can't help you.

These results have generally been attributed to "pressure" from the United States government, and depending on where you sit politically, your reason to cry foul might range from the thoughtful ("This sort of extrajudicial pressure is undemocratic.") to, you know, hers ("C'mon, Obama: deploy the snipers, already.").
Let's put aside for the moment protests from the State Department and DOJ that they have not, in fact, been working the phones with the credit card companies.

If you are a cardholder calling about abusive finance charges, press 1. If you are Hillary Clinton, and you're calling about WikiLeaks, press 2 . . .

Even taking State and Justice at their word, the U.S. government has — ahem — other instrumentalities that can do this sort of behind-the-scenes work. And for that matter, the government can apply pressure on WikiLeaks's corporate contractors without contacting them directly. The nationally broadcast rumblings from a certain U.S. Senator against the New York Times, word from DOJ that it is continues to consider its criminal enforcement options against Assange — this sort of thing raises red flags for the legal and PR departments of large corporate institutions. Talk of government action against WikiLeaks and, more importantly, another large corporate institution that has had dealings with WikiLeaks, might certainly be enough to give Amazon pause to think about how important its hosting relationship with WikiLeaks really is.

But of course, I'm speculating. And herein lies the problem in judging the actions taken by the government to date: we really don't know what the government has been up to, and we don't know what role it's played in prompting the Amazon takedown and the credit card kissoffs. It seems plausible, by which I mean "obvious," that these results are attributable at least in part to direct or indirect government (as opposed to public) pressure. But absent any of the deets, we're stuck with that exceedingly vague word: pressure.

When I hear complaints about unelaborated "government pressure," I'm put in mind of the 2008 election, when the American right, put to the task of trying to explain how the financial crisis was entirely the fault of the American left, complained that the government "pressured" banks to make the lousy subprime loans that, in the end, precipitated the destruction of our economy. (Here's a post-election rendition of that argument, from a predictable source.) And as a right-minded Obama supporter, I raised the appropriate objections, one of which focused on the term "pressure," which the argument's adherents seemed to have left deliberately vague. What does "pressure" mean? Something short of force, presumably, but other than that, no details. Can it really be said that a financial institution, in the modern U.S. of A., will ever succumb to "government pressure" and take on business it doesn't want to have? In the end, of course, it was the banks that issued the loans, and just as emphasis on the alleged government pressure did the rhetorical work of lifting agency from the banks, we risk letting Amazon et al. off the hook here in the same way. And we shouldn't, necessarily.

More importantly, government exerts pressure on corporations in all sorts of ways, some of which are more benign and democratic than others. Perhaps President Obama works the bully pulpit to prompt improved remedial action from BP, or the aforementioned Senator wanders into a cable news studio and calls for federal investigation of the Times. We might be inclined to critique either of these undertakings, based on our feelings about the speakers and corporations involved. But these surely do not constitute the sort of government pressure that undermines our democracy. After all, public officials have always been entitled to leverage their power over corporations through speech, and this is a tradition we should continue, given that corporations are, we're told, very much entitled to do the converse.

Contrast a species of pressure that I think would indeed be sorely troubling, as a democratic matter: imagine that DOJ did contact Amazon and threaten to charge its principals under the godawfully vague espionage laws still on the books, if it didn't give the boot. In theory DOJ could have brandished similar charges at the payment processors, on an aiding and abetting theory. And if/when WikiLeaks ever finds itself listed as a designated terror organization, PayPal and card companies could be charged for providing it with "material support." A considerably greater pressure would be brought to bear under these circumstances, and at its root is the monopoly on force. For that matter, if the government threatened or executed cyberattacks on the target companies, then I would agree that the government pressure would be inappropriately applied and of grave concern to our constitutional, democratic system.

The thing is, we just don't know what's gone on outside of the public view. We don't know what sort of pressure the government might have applied to Amazon, PayPal, and the card companies, and so we're stuck. Hm. If only there were somebody out there — some sort of organization — that could get hold of the details and pass them along to the public . . .