The YES MEN Spoof the WTO with Fake Website
The World Trade Organization (WTO) aims to liberalize international trade by decreasing tariffs, quotas, and bans and encouraging trade agreements amongst its 153 member states. On its website, the Organization asserts that – amongst other benefits - these measures help the environment, improve the economies of the less-developed countries, and ultimately lower costs for the consumer. Critics of the Organization, however, believe that its policies ultimately yield higher profits to the richer, capitalistic countries while exploiting the lower labor costs of their financially weaker counterparts and ignoring the human rights and environmental implications.
Along with their “loose-knit association of some three hundred impostors worldwide," activists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno – also known as the “Yes Men” – have a history of “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them … targeting leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.” In effect, their “hijinks” serve as a form of protest against globalization, “provid[ing] a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of business.” Beyond impersonations, the Yes Men also run websites that spoof the legitimate websites of their targets, which many members of the public have mistaken for real sites, in turn contacting the fake website for interviews, questions, and information.
Their protest of the WTO began with the spoof website gatt.org, aptly named after the Organization’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). On May 21, 2002, an announcement was posted on the website stating that, “the World Trade Organisation as we know it will no longer exist.” As justification for this decision, the press release cited “recent studies which indicate strongly that the current free trade rules and policies have increased poverty, pollution, and inequality, and have eroded democratic principles, with a disproportionatly [sic] large negative effect on the poorest countries.” The release concluded with a listing of WTO contact information, providing readers with the phone number and email address of none other than Mike Bonanno. The stunt caught the attention of the mainstream media, and through this additional coverage, reached a larger audience. Staying in character, the Yes Men continued the farce by making appearances in front of television audiences and classrooms. In one such instance, “Hanniford Schmidt” announced the WTO’s push for “a full private stewardry of labor” in Africa to a class of students at Wharton Business School, detailing the proposed “formalized slavery” model. The news of this conference was documented in another “press release” on the gatt.org website.
Following the creation of this website and others, many people have wondered about the legal ramifications the Yes Men could potentially face. In 1999, the (real) WTO issued a statement warning of the fake website, calling it “strictly unauthorized” and stressing that it could be “picked up by search engines, a nuisance for serious users looking for genuine information.” In 2001, DG Mike Moore calls the website “illegal” and urges members to join him and the WTO in “deploring any action which makes it more difficult for the public to gain access to WTO information.” Moore states, “It’s ironic that while the WTO is accused of lacking transparency, some critics who put out misleading or false information are camouflaging their identities." Later that year, the WTO called Verio, the host of the website, demanding that the website be taken down. While the WTO cited copyright issues, the Yes Men stood their ground, calling their website a parody, which is legal.
In her blog, law school professor Anita Ramasatry describes the activities of the Yes Men as a “David and Goliath Story for the Internet Era,” saying that parodies are generally exempt from copyright laws, in turn protecting freedom of speech and expression.
Following the exposure to the faux website, this prank and others led to the 2003 release of the movie The Yes Men, in which camera crews follow Andy and Mike around the globe as they impersonate WTO officials at conferences and interviews. As Roger Ebert declared in his 2004 review of the movie, “what is incredible … is the lengths to which a trade audience can be pushed without realizing it is the butt of a joke.” The point made, he says, is “(a) no one is really listening, (b) no one is thinking, or (c) the immorality of the WTO's exploitation of cheap foreign labor becomes invisible when it is described in purely economic terms.” Despite this coverage, however, the World Trade Organization has not, in fact, ceased to exist, but perhaps viewers of the website and moviegoers alike will not blindly accept international policies without first stopping to think about the real world implications.
Beyond their own websites, the Yes Men have also created the “Yes Lab” to work with other activist groups to help them organize their campaigns and bring their goals to fruition, targeting corporations and promoting dialogue and awareness.
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