Meet WikiLeak's American Friend

Last Updated Dec 14, 2010 2:29 PM EST

When PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa all announced that they would no longer process donations to WikiLeaks, Sharif J. Alexandre, founder of the mobile payment startup XIPWIRE in Philadelphia, made a controversial decision: His company would process the donations.

Alexandre says his personal feelings about WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange are beside the point. As long as WikiLeaks is a legal entity and a registered not-for-profit, you have the right to decide for yourself whether or not to donate to the organization -- it shouldn't be a decision dictated by financial services giants afraid of backlash from Washington. I recently spoke to Alexandre about his decision.

DF: Did you take donations for WikiLeaks before it leaked the classified cables?
SA: No. We're a mobile payments company with three lines of business -- person to person, payments for businesses, and donations for non-profits, which is big part of who we are. When we saw that PayPal, followed by Visa and MasterCard, decided to pull out of WikiLeaks, it didn't feel right. So we decided to put up a page and create a separate account for them to collect donations on their behalf.

DF: You did this on your own initiative. Has WikiLeaks contacted you?
SA: They emailed us [last Friday morning]. There was almost a dual sense of mistrust. At first they didn't know who they were sending the email to and we didn't know who we were getting the email from. But they were pleased that somebody stepped up and they were comfortable with the escrow model that we have in place. We clarified that there's a difference between Julian Assange and the organization. The two may be tied, but the donations we're collecting are for the organization.

DF: This looks like a David vs. Goliath publicity ploy on your part.
SA: We didn't make a big push for it. We created the page and we put it out it out there on Twitter with a couple of tweets so that the marketplace could decide. Regardless of who we are as a company or what we believe, a corporation doesn't have the right to tell you who you can or can't donate to. If we were looking for publicity we would have done it in a less controversial way.

DF: So how has the marketplace reacted?
SA: For every hundred positive reactions, there's one negative. Honestly, we've had so much support through social media, and through our call center. People are saying 'Thank you for letting me decide on my own.' Some people have even asked if we have stock available. We don't have stock, but we need a new couch and a conference table.

DF: Aren't you concerned that your support of WikiLeaks will attract the wrong element to your company?
SA: In terms of us creating an escrow account for WikiLeaks, that's a one off. We've only done it one other time when a girl in our neighborhood was murdered and the community wanted to collect $25,000 in reward money. Normally, when a not-for-profit organization comes to us, we verify that they are a 501 (c) (3) and we do due diligence on them. We work with about 20 not-for-profits and we've gotten an influx of inquiries over the past few days. We also do person-to-person payments, but it's a closed system so each person has to have an account if they want to text each other money. We know where every dollar is coming from and going to and we have a maximum of $500 per transaction for person-to-person transfers.

DF: About 70 percent of Americans think the leaks are doing more harm than good. Don't you think your stance on WikiLeaks will ultimately hurt your reputation with consumers?
SA: We knew it was going to be controversial. For us, it was a principled decision. We were filing a void in the marketplace. And when you see hundreds of people coming in to donate, you know there's something there.

DF: If Julian Assange is eventually convicted of rape or spying, will you stop taking donations for WikiLeaks?
SA: If the organization is deemed a legal entity, we're dealing with the not-for-profit itself rather than the individual. If the money is then used to support his legal defense, it's not our business. It's not up to us to regulate how an organization spends its money.

Weigh in, dear readers! Does Alexandre have a valid point, or should WikiLeaks, whose Web site is now hosted by a Swiss company, be deprived of all U.S. funds? Remember that the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Citizens United v. FEC that donations are a form of free speech and thus protected under the First Amendment.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Noah Sussman, CC 2.0