WASHINGTON — WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website that has been at the center of some of the world's most controversial news for the past 18 months, is facing dire economic times, largely, the website says, because Visa, MasterCard and PayPal have refused for more than 10 months to process donations made on its behalf.
The total financial cost of what WikiLeaks calls a blockade is uncertain, but the lack of resources mixed with turmoil that has surrounded the organization has kept the website from accepting new documents from would-be leakers for much of the year, its spokesman says.
WikiLeaks said Thursday on its Twitter feed that it would announce a new fundraising effort Monday, but how successful that can be without a lifting of the credit card barrier is an unknown. More than 90 percent of online transactions are handled through credit cards.
That means donors wishing to contribute to WikiLeaks must send money to two European bank accounts, a process that is both cumbersome and expensive. An online auction last month of WikiLeaks memorabilia raised "not a significant amount" of money, according to the spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a former television journalist in Iceland.
What large donors the organization has, Hrafnsson said, give primarily to help with legal expenses for the website's founder, Julian Assange, who is currently awaiting a British court decision on whether he should be extradited to Sweden for questioning in a sexual misconduct case. Those funds are "separately controlled" by an outside committee, Hrafnsson said.
DataCell, an Icelandic company that had been accepting donations for WikiLeaks, has filed a complaint with the European Commission against Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, saying the refusal to accept donations for WikiLeaks violates European Union trade agreements. Litigation also is being considered against the companies in the United States, Hrafnsson said this week. But there is no date set for a response on the European complaint, and a lawsuit inside the United States would seem to offer little hope for a short-term resolution.
MasterCard did not respond to a request for comment. Spokesmen for Visa and Bank of America, which also refuses to process payments destined for WikiLeaks, declined to comment.
PayPal in an email Friday referred to two statements it had made in December that said it had closed WikiLeaks' account because the website's activities violated its service agreement, which forbids payments to organizations that encourage illegal activities — a reference to U.S. charges that documents WikiLeaks was publishing had been purloined by an Army intelligence specialist from an internal U.S. government archive. The statements did not accuse WikiLeaks of illegal activities but said WikiLeaks' source for the documents had probably broken the law.
To date, neither WikiLeaks nor Assange has been charged with a crime, though Assange reportedly is the subject of a continuing federal grand jury investigation in Virginia.
WikiLeaks has been beset by financial problems before. In late 2009, the organization took down its website when it could no longer pay for computer hosting expenses, a blackout that lasted five months before donations began to surge in April 2010, the same month WikiLeaks posted a video shot from a U.S. helicopter that recorded the death of a Reuters photographer.
That video, dubbed "Collateral Murder," was the first of what would become four controversial releases of documents during 2010, all apparently obtained from a classified U.S. computer archive by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning is currently being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., facing 34 criminal charges, including passing secrets to the enemy.
Fundraising records posted on the website of Germany's Wau Holland Foundation, which handled some donations for WikiLeaks and also tracked its expenses, show that contributions through Wau Holland's PayPal account for WikiLeaks rose after each of the 2010 document releases — the Collateral Murder video in April, a set of records related to the war in Afghanistan in July, a similar set of Iraq war records in October and then finally the massive release of more than 250,000 State Department cables that began in November and continued until September, when WikiLeaks made the entire file public.
During 2010, the plurality of donations to WikiLeaks, nearly 35 percent, came from donors in the United States, the Wau Holland report shows, with donors in Germany and Great Britain providing the next largest percentages, 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively. The average donation in 2010 was $35.
For the year, Wau Holland said, it took in nearly $900,000 for the website from PayPal alone — in excess of the $555,000 that Wau Holland reported WikiLeaks spent. Wau Holland reported it took in another $960,000 in bank transfers on WikiLeaks' behalf.
There are no similar figures for donations via Visa or MasterCard.
What fundraising would have looked like in 2011 is, of course, unknown, though based on the Wau Holland records, it seems likely that it would have exceeded 2010.
In the first four days of December 2010, after the State Department documents began appearing but before PayPal blocked the foundation's account on Dec. 4, Wau Holland recorded more than $138,000 in contributions to WikiLeaks from PayPal, more than in any previous month that year, except April, when PayPal donations totaled approximately $235,000.
Hrafnsson said the website took in more than $180,000 in the last 24 hours before the credit card companies closed down its accounts.
In July, WikiLeaks claimed on its website that the blockade had cost it $15 million, but Hrafnsson noted that WikiLeaks has never put such a figure in its official filings. He said that based on simple multiplication, the 333 days the blockade has lasted as of Friday might well have cost the website much more.
Certainly, however, it would have been more than the $500,000 he said WikiLeaks' is currently spending annually for computer services and technical support.
"We'd been seeing growing support," Hrafnsson said. "I am certain that support would have continued."
That assertion no doubt would be debated. Hrafnsson cited a survey by the French market research company Ipsos, which found in March that 75 percent of the more than 18,000 asked worldwide approved of WikiLeaks' activities.
But that number was just 39 percent in the United States, and when respondents were asked specifically whether WikiLeaks founder Assange should be prosecuted for publishing the secret State Department cables, 69 percent said yes.