One of the more annoying things about watching the major news publications discussing the Wikileaks controversy is how infrequently they seem to realize that many of the attacks they themselves have been directing (or redirecting) at Wikileaks could come back to haunt them as well, as many could apply to them when they do things such as publish information about leaked documents. In fact, just last week, we wondered how come all those financial firms (including Visa, MasterCards, Bank of America and Paypal) were not cutting off the NY Times after it revealed military secrets
. It appears that some folks on the NY Times editorial board have realized the same thing and published an editorial condemning the decision to cut off Wikileaks by these financial firms
[A] bank's ability to block payments to a legal entity raises a troubling prospect. A handful of big banks could potentially bar any organization they disliked from the payments system, essentially cutting them off from the world economy...
Still, there are troubling questions. The decisions to bar the organization came after its founder, Julian Assange, said that next year it will release data revealing corruption in the financial industry. In 2009, Mr. Assange said that WikiLeaks had the hard drive of a Bank of America executive.
What would happen if a clutch of big banks decided that a particularly irksome blogger or other organization was "too risky"? What if they decided -- one by one -- to shut down financial access to a newspaper that was about to reveal irksome truths about their operations?
That said, part of the editorial is a bit worrisome, as it seems to be suggesting that banks themselves should not be able to decide who they can and cannot work with, and that since they are "not too unlike other public utilities," perhaps they should be regulated, in the same way that a telco cannot refuse to provide phone or internet service to an operation who it does not like. I'm not sure that's necessarily the lesson we should be taking from this, however. The larger lesson is more about the lack of real competition in the space, where a very small number of intermediaries are effectively able to block off much of the money supply. That's the real problem. The answer should be to encourage greater competition in the space, such that if a few firms decide to cut off a service, it doesn't really matter, since there are many others to step in and help in their place.