Search engines are directing visitors to a subtle parody of the Web site of the World Trade Organization (WTO) instead of the real thing -- and the WTO is powerless to stop it, the Geneva-based body warned Wednesday in an e-mail 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 e-mail 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.
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 (www.gatt.org) 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 Organization 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 organization. It's not a course that interests the WTO at all."
The domain name gatt.org is registered to Jonathan Prince of Washington, D.C., operator of the Web site killyourtv.com, but another group calling themselves The Yes Men claim responsibility for the WTO parody. On their Web site, www.theyesmen.org, they claim that the parody has even resulted in them being invited to speak at a conference on the WTO's behalf.
(Martyn Williams in Tokyo contributed to this report.)