Visa Europe and MasterCard are facing a competition complaint in Brussels over their decision to block credit card payments to WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, said the payment processors’ “economic blockade” had cost the website tens of millions of euros and that the site could become financially unviable if the action did not end.

DataCell, the Icelandic internet hosting and data centre company that handled payments for WikiLeaks, filed a complaint to the European Commission on Thursday, saying the payment processing companies had acted unlawfully in stopping payments to the site.

Visa and MasterCard and a number of other financial services companies such as PayPal restricted payments to WikiLeaks in December after the website angered governments by publishing thousands of secret US diplomatic cables. The payments companies were later targeted by activist computer hackers in revenge.

The block on payments has made it difficult for supporters of WikiLeaks to make donations to the site. DataCell was handling about €130,000 ($186,000) worth of donations a day to WikiLeaks before its payment processing services were stopped. WikiLeaks relies on a large number of small public donations to continue its work.

“We have lost around 90 per cent of our donations in value terms and the estimated loss based on those rough figures we have so far is some €15m,” Mr Assange said.

He added that WikiLeaks’ work had been “tremendously impeded” by lack of funds, but that it continued to release thousands of cables from its cache of US diplomatic memos.

Mr Assange compared WikiLeaks’ position with that of News International, which has faced many allegations of phone hacking and other illegal activity at its UK newspapers in recent weeks.

“WikiLeaks and its employees have not been charged with any illegal activity,” he told reporters in London. “Compare that to News International who has had staff, employees and contractors imprisoned for illegal activity yet still we do not see US financial companies cutting off their services to News International. Why not?”

Mr Assange is fighting a UK High Court battle against a decision to extradite him to Sweden to face charges of “non-consensual, coerced sex”.

DataCell said Visa and MasterCard’s block on payments was unjustified and an abuse of their dominant position in the market. The data centre company maintains it has violated neither Icelandic law nor Visa and MasterCard’s terms of service in serving WikiLeaks as a customer.

Visa Europe has a 67.7 per cent share of the payment card market in Europe, while MasterCard has 27.7 per cent.

DataCell’s lawyer, Sveinn Andri Sveinsson, said the block on payments had left the company unable to carry on with its normal data centre business, as it could not take card payments from any of its customers. He said the company had suffered business losses of about €50m as a result.

The Commission confirmed it had received the complaint and was reviewing it. Officials declined to comment further.

EU competition officials do, however, know both card companies well after a decade-long tussle over their fees charged on cross-border card payments. Although these cases have been resolved to some extent, Visa is still in dispute with the commission over fees on credit card payments while MasterCard last week faced off against Brussels in the European courts over principles involved in determining fees on credit and debit cards generally.

Visa Europe has a 67.7 per cent share of the payment card market in Europe, while MasterCard has 27.7 per cent. The companies told the Financial Times that it was usual practice to suspend payments to companies suspected of illegal behaviour.

Visa said on Thursday that it was “happy to discuss [the complaint] with the Commission”. MasterCard declined to comment on the complaint.

Additional reporting by Nikki Tait in Brussels.

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