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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Judging WikiLeaks: Amazon and PayPal's Glass Houses

It's safe to say that the story of WikiLeak's posting of diplomatic cables or what happens when diplomats stop being nice and start getting real is as ubiquitous as Leslie Nielsen quotes. WikiLeak's actions have triggered government investigations and lively debate about the role of news organizations and democracies. WikiLeaks creates extreme discomfort and operates in shades of gray as it forces us to deeply question the definition of freedom and role of government. Personally, I like my government like I like my negligees which is transparent. However, this debate is far from clear.

What I think is clear is Amazon and PayPal's role in the WikiLeaks story. PayPal dropped WikiLeaks as a customer which cut off their primary way of receiving revenue. Amazon kicked WikiLeak off their servers because Senator Joe Lieberman complained. Both companies judged WikiLeaks before any judicial body had made a decision and put their political and possibly ethical opinion above shareholders or the traditional role of a business.

The role of business in society is the subject of a few lectures in the required business school ethics class. One side will claim that shareholder value trumps all as business' prime purpose is profits not societal change. The other will claim the business needs to support its communities and there is a return in investing in society. Businesses have also become intertwined in politics in positive ways such as the boycotts of oppressive regimes and as corrupting forces by pumping money through PACS and lobbyists.

However, PayPal and Amazon's role is beyond a business decision to invest or even endorse a particular position. Their actions were similar to blockading a harbor or funding rebel troops. PayPal's blog claimed that cutting off WikiLeaks' account was prompted by a violation of the service provider's policy, "which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity." Comments on this PayPal blog post are closed. However, one can freely comment on the Pay Pal blog post "Tips for Safe Selling this Holiday Season".

I find it perplexing that PayPal seems to have decided that WikiLeak's engaged in illegal activity when no court has convicted WikiLeaks. Considering the scrutiny of financial institutions and new regulations, PayPal may find themselves convicted of committing illegal activity before WikiLeaks. I had a recent phone conversation with their outsourced India-based call center about fees that I was charged on a transaction that were not disclosed clearly. When I asked them who their regulatory agency was, they had no idea.

With regards to Amazon responding so quickly to Joe Lieberman's complaints, I have to say, seriously? Lieberman is an old east coast orthodox Jewish guy which means he complains 30 times a day by definition. Amazon's customer service is probably on a first name basis with him over complaints about how his last order, Big Dick Cheney, turned out not to be about the former vice-president.

In reality, both companies probably caved into political pressure faster than the Kardashian's update their twitter posts. I just hope that they at least got a good deal for selling their souls and advancing well beyond the normal role of business in politics. Because people in glass houses should change their clothes in the basement.

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