In December, Visa and MasterCard stopped processing payments for WikiLeaks. Debit cards are the predominant financial instrument of our time thanks to their ease of use for both payers and payees. However, when using our debit cards as consumers, rarely do we consider the fact that a portion of every purchase we make goes to the card companies themselves. The treatment of WikiLeaks demonstrates that the card companies are willing and able to use their control of the systems through which we make make and receive payments in order to decide for us which social and political causes we as private individuals have the right to support and which we don’t. WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization which, unlike NewsCorp, has never been shown to engage in criminal activity. As such, there exists no plausible reason for denying payments to WikiLeaks, especially given that no similar action has been taken against NewsCorp.
Visa and MasterCard do indeed exert nearly complete control over one of the most useful viaducts through which currency flows. However, it is important to recall that the cornerstone of the debit card’s success has been its use as an instrument of convenience rather than one of strict necessity. With only a bit more forethought and planning, much of what we use our cards to purchase could be purchased with cash instead. By using other methods of payment whenever possible, we can send a powerful message to the card companies in response to their unjustifiable attack upon WikiLeaks: we value our freedom more than we do our convenience. More than that however, using cash rather than cards is also a way to put a few more pennies into the hands of community businesses, which often eat the card companies’ charges as part of the cost of doing business. In the age of the Great Recession, community businesses (which, unlike their corporate counterparts, actually use a significant portion of their revenues for hiring) need all the help they can get.