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WTO protest spills onto the Web
Organizing activists not above a bit of chicanery
By Bob Sullivan
MSNBC
Dec. 1 — Can’t get to Seattle to wreak havoc on city streets near this week’s WTO ministerial meetings? There are virtual alternatives. A number of Web sites have been set up to taunt, disable, or just downright annoy representatives of the World Trade Organization this week. One such site, a convincing parody of the WTO Web site, also occupies the convincing URL www.GATT.org. Another has been set up to overwhelm WTO computers with a “virtual sit-in.”

   
 
       
   
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‘I feel that confusion is a very valuable state. When I’m confused I’m really thinking about something. It’s only really in moments of confusion that you can change the way you think.’
FRENK GUERRERO
WTO parody site co-creator
       CYBERSPACE OFFERS A new frontier for activists trying to make their point, and many have flocked to the World Wide Web. There’s plenty of sites offering protester-eye videos and activist-oriented news accounts of the WTO ministerial meetings. But the Net has been more than an information resource to WTO opponents.
       Tuesday’s sometimes violent protests throughout downtown Seattle were organized in part by a variety of sites set up to rally activists. One such site, www.n30.org, arranged for international protests on Nov. 30, the day the conference opened. It was similar to the j18.org demonstrations around the world held to coincide with a meeting of the G8 nations in Germany last June.

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       This time, protesters were not above playing a bit of bait-and-switch. The name of the most prominent Seattle WTO meeting protest site, www.seattleWTO.org, hardly suggests it’s a source of anti-WTO information.
       
A REALISTIC PARODY
       Visitors to Gatt.org will be even more surprised — it has nothing to do with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which preceded the WTO. Instead, Gatt.org is nearly an exact duplication of the WTO’s Web site — even links off the home page carry forward the impersonation. But read the pages carefully, and the messages are hardly supportive of multinational corporations.
       Visitors to the site’s environment section, for example, are greeted by hypothetical protests. One, called “Park,” tells users: “To call attention to the lack of public transportation in Los Angeles (a lack deliberately engineered, of course, by General Motors in the 1950s), install ‘FREE PARKING’ bags on parking meters everywhere in the city.”
       The WTO thinks Gatt.org is no laughing matter, and thought enough of the parody to issue a press release condemning the site on Nov. 23.
       
THE WTO RESPONDS


       “I am deeply concerned about the recent appearance of anonymous websites which copy important design features of the WTO’s official Web sites,” said WTO Director-General Mike Moore in the statement. “This causes confusion among visitors looking for genuine information from the WTO, disrupting a much-needed democratic dialogue.”
       The confusion is part of the charm, said one of the site’s creators, Frank Guerrero.
       “I feel that confusion is a very valuable state,” he said. “When I’m confused I’m really thinking about something. It’s only really in moments of confusion that you can change the way you think.”
       Guerrero is an executive at RTMark.com, a company set up to encourage protest behavior. It’s been in the news before for such URL treachery — it publishes a spoof site aimed at New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at yesrudy.com (Giuliani’s senate campaign site is actually located at rudyyes.com), and treated presidential candidate George W. Bush the same way at GWBush.com.

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       “We use this mirroring technique as a means for revealing something, contradictions, hypocrisies,” Guerrero said. “Hopefully in the moments of confusion somebody might experience we can open up a space for thinking a different way about these organizations.”
‘Forgive us for protesting but there are valid protests to be made. If people are having difficulty, please understand there’s a very important agenda here.’
TIM SHAW
Virtual sit-in participant
       The GATT.org domain name doesn’t actually belong to RTMark.com — it was donated to the organization by an individual who was surprised to find it wasn’t already taken and registered it in October 1997. He’s not at all concerned that some readers might end up misinformed by the spoof site.
       “In the information age, people have to learn for themselves, they have to investigate all sides,” he said. He declined to be identified. “There are links to the actual WTO site; they can certainly find the alternative version.”
       
A VIRTUAL SIT-IN
       But when they find the real WTO site, it may not be working, if a group of “electrohippies” has their way. The group has set up a Web page specifically designed to overwhelm the WTO’s Web site through a virtual “sit-in.” Computers that arrive there automatically open up multiple versions of their Web browser so they repeatedly hit www.wto.org with requests.
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       Such flooding, called a denial of service attack, is not a new technique — it was used to shut down Mexican government Web sites to support struggling Zapatista farmers earlier this year.
       According to one of the site’s owners, Tim Shaw, the sit-in received about 100,000 hits each day this week.
       “It seems to be having some effect; (the WTO site) seems to be a bit slow,” Shaw said from his farmhouse in Wales, England. “Which is really useful to make these people listen. These people are driving ahead an agenda. They won’t listen to the concerns of real people.”
       The site was actually authored by Paul Mobbs, who describes himself as an independent environmental consultant on his Web site. The sit-in has been criticized by some because it merely seeks to block access to information — a denial of the WTO’s right to free speech. Shaw said that was a small price to pay, given the importance of his group’s message.
       “Forgive us for protesting but there are valid protests to be made,” he said. “If people are having difficulty, please understand there’s a very important agenda here.”
       The site has been up all week, but Mobbs hopes to concentrate protest efforts on Friday, when the WTO meeting’s communiqué is scheduled to be delivered. The “electrohippies” group has also promised an e-mail based attack on the WTO or a “related target” at the same time.
       
       
   
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