Sunday, December 26, 2010

The extrajudicial power of megabanks

In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times asks:
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? This decision should not be left solely up to business-as-usual among the banks.
They pose this question because that's exactly what a "clutch of big banks" have done to Wikileaks, a website that
has not been convicted of a crime. The Justice Department has not even pressed charges over its disclosure of confidential State Department communications. Nonetheless, the financial industry is trying to shut it down.
And, as the editorial notes,
[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.

The fact of the matter is that banks are not like any other business. They run the payments system. That is one of the main reasons that governments protect them from failure with explicit and implicit guarantees. This makes them look not too unlike other public utilities. A telecommunications company, for example, may not refuse phone or broadband service to an organization it dislikes, arguing that it amounts to risky business.
Isn't this akin to the issue with certain telecommunications corporations determined to end "net neutrality"? How, if governments don't upgrade freedom of speech to actual 21st-century circumstances, will we keep our last illusions of freedom from joining our formerly cherished right to privacy in the graveyard of history?

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