- Search engines are directing visitors to a subtle parody of the website of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) instead of the real thing -- and the WTO is powerless to stop it, the Geneva-based body warned yesterday in an email to members of its mailing list.
The parody site, which has been around since late 1999, has in the last week copied the WTO's own site design and begun harvesting the email addresses of visitors without their permission, WTO spokesman Jean-Guy Carrier said in a telephone interview. This could enable the hoaxers to send visitors information purporting to be from the WTO, he said.
However, the "harvesting" of email seems hardly discreet. The email collection function seems to be tied to the parody site's search feature. An attempt yesterday to use the search feature led the fake site to attempt to launch the user's email client using a simple "mailto:" link to send a message to the site's creators, but the link appeared to be broken. Another attempt triggered a pop-up message warning the user: "This form is being submitted using email. Submitting this form will reveal your email address to the recipient, and will send the form data without encrypting it for privacy." The user then was given the option to either cancel or continue with the search request.
The parody at www.gatt.org (a reference to the WTO's predecessor, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) mimics almost every detail of the WTO's own site at www.wto.org -- right down to the front-page warning about a fake site masquerading as the real thing. The hoaxers have subverted this to warn visitors of the imagined dangers of a third site, www.wto-ministerial.org, set up by the WTO to promote an upcoming conference.
The parody site contains so many references to the WTO that search engines are directing people to it instead of the real thing. A search of Altavista using the keyword "WTO" returns www.gatt.org in fifth place.
The hoaxers have made small alterations to the text on their copy of the site. "Secretary General Mike Moore" in the original text of a press release becomes "Chief Executive Officer Mike Moore" on the fake site, and "a draft Ministerial Declaration on intellectual property and access to medicines/public health" is transformed at www.gatt.org into "a draft Ministerial Declaration on Intello-Corporate Ownership and access to medicines/consumer work-fitness."
While the WTO encourages criticism of its role, there are limits to the forms this should take, said Carrier.
"It's a serious argument to make for or against the WTO, and we encourage that," he said, but "not masquerading as the WTO. It's very deceptive, it literally steals the look of the WTO," he said.
The WTO is powerless to put an end to the masquerade until a new procedure for domain name arbitration is introduced by the World Intellectual Property Organisation allowing it to take control of the domain gatt.org, Carrier said.
Meanwhile it would be possible to sue the creators of the parody site for theft of the WTO's graphical identity, but "We are not in the business of suing people," he said. "First of all its very expensive, it takes a lot of time, and we are not that kind of organisation. It's not a course that interests the WTO at all."
The domain name gatt.org is registered to Jonathan Prince of Washington, DC, operator of the website killyourtv.com, but another group calling themselves The Yes Men claim responsibility for the WTO parody.
A request for comment made via email by the IDG News Service to a The Yes Men email address found on the group's site yielded an email response from someone claiming to be a group representative. "We are not harvesting email addresses -- it's just not so easy, if you're dumb like us, to write a search script, see? We don't know how they do it, so we can't rip that off. It's easier to just put a mailto: in there."
The representative, signing himself Andrew Bichlbaum, wrote that email messages sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by the search form would receive an automated reply.
On their website, The Yes Men claim that the parody has even resulted in them being invited to speak at a conference on the WTO's behalf. They say they sent a speaker named Andreas Bichlbauer to a conference in Salzburg in October 2000.
(Martyn Williams in Tokyo contributed to this report.)