WikiLeaks Blames U.S. Lawmakers for Visa/MasterCard Blockade

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WikiLeaks' founder accused two members of Congress of pressuring MasterCard (MA) and Visa (V) to block payments to his group after it published thousands of confidential messages about U.S. diplomacy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Julian Assange charged Tuesday that Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Peter King from New York influenced the moves by both companies in December 2010 to halt the payments.

Assange, speaking to reporters from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he claimed asylum in June to avoid extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault, said the blockade had eliminated 95% of WikiLeaks' revenue and cost the group roughly $50 million in donations.

"It is concerning that hard-right elements in the United States have been able to pressure Visa and MasterCard, who together hold monopoly over the European market, into introducing a blockade that the U.S. Treasury has rightly rejected," Assange said. (Treasury told Rep. King in January 2011 that neither Assange nor WikiLeaks met the criteria for being placed on the specially designated nationals list, according to news reports.)

According to WikiLeaks, MasterCard admitted in filings with European regulators that the company discussed the suspension of payments with the staffs of both the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, which Lieberman chairs, and the House Committee on Homeland Security, which is chaired by King. However, it is unclear from the materials WikiLeaks points to whether the conversations preceded the company's decision to halt payments. The group says that Visa's European arm stopped processing payments to WikiLeaks under orders from the company's U.S. operation.

A spokeswoman for Lieberman pointed to a December 2010 statement by the senator in which he lauded companies that cut off services to WikiLeaks as "good corporate citizens." A spokesman for MasterCard declined to comment.

Neither Rep. King nor Visa responded immediately to requests for comment.

WikiLeaks bemoaned a decision Tuesday by the European Commission, which concluded preliminarily that the payments blockade was unlikely to have contravened EU antitrust rules. WikiLeaks and DataCell, a company that collects donations for the group, filed a complaint in July 2011 with the commission against MasterCard and Visa, which together process roughly 95% of credit card transactions in Europe.

According to WikiLeaks, the commission's ruling runs afoul of sentiment in the European Parliament, which the group praised for taking steps recently to prevent the refusal of payments by credit card companies.

"On the basis of the information available, the commission considers that the complaint does not merit further investigation because it is unlikely that any infringement of EU competition rules could be established," a spokesman for the commission told Reuters.

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