Challenging the WTO online: rTmark's WTO site
Felix Stalder

Telepolis, 18.11.1999 [english version] [german version]

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When Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. representative to the WTO, pronounced that "the single greatest threat to the multilateral trade system is the absence of public support" she probably didn't expect her statement would become a rallying slogan for online activists *against* the WTO's "millennium round" (Seattle, WA, 29.11.-3.12).

But uncovering layers of hidden meaning in corporate and political double speak is what rTmark is brilliant in. rTmark, a NYC-based artist/activist collective, uses its limited liability as a corporation to sponsor the sabotage of mass-produced products, and to discuss corporate abuses of the political process. Currently they donate their website to support the rainbow coalition of labour, environment and regional groups that raise public awareness about and resistance against the WTO.

rTmark is best known for two campaigns which both are still running. One is to expose presidential hopeful George W. Bush as a hypocrite who is though on crime, except on his own. The other is to document the fascist tendencies of NYC major Rudolf Guiliani who is also a candidate for the US senate. In both campaigns rTmark is using domain names and sites that look like the official site and are full of real quotes and events, but of the sort the candidates would like us to never hear or forget about. rTmark's goal is to expose the ugly and dangerous sides of their personality and political agendas.

The WTO site is done in the same spirit. It uses similar graphic elements as the official WTO site but contains a directory to the growing number of direct action initiatives to resist the unfettered rule of global capitalism in general and free trade in particular. But the site is much more than a simple resource page to groups and initiatives that exists elsewhere. Under the headings of trade topics that WTO is going to negotiate about--Goods, Services, Environment, and more--rTmark has set up various investment funds similar to venture capital funds. These funds hope match creative ideas of how to challenge the neo-liberal juggernaut with the necessary capital and manpower to turn them into reality.

Some of these funds are managed by well-known net.artists, Heath Bunting , for example, oversees several high-risk funds for subversive goods. All in all, there are a few dozens of these funds, all proposing direct action to expose the cruelty and cynicism of the advanced global capitalism. Under the heading Dispute Settlement, this action is looking for capital and manpower: "Insert realistic collector cards into cereal boxes, each with a photo and description of one of the many workers that has been killed or maimed at the cereal manufacturer's factory."

Many of the funds' "business plans" surf hard at the border of legality. But their power is often more symbolic as in the fund to rename a factory of a major chemical weapons manufacturer after former US-president Ronald Reagan.

It is difficult to assess the effectiveness this type of political parody and activism. However, after the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) last year, and the growing resistance against unfettered free trade in Europe and other parts of the world, the WTO is indeed at a critical junction. If the millennium round fails the future of the WTO is in question. Public opinion is a major factor in determining its fate. Sustained by a constant rethoric of inevitability--globalization is progress, the market is natural--resistance often seems futile. The rTmark site shows that this does not need to be true. They do this through a powerful mix of the real and the virtual, confusion and clarification, symbolic and direct action.

Various behind the scenes effort illustrate that this type of innovative subversive tactics is being noticed, and feared. G.W. Bush sent out his lawyer trying to stop the critical site, unsuccessfully so far. Various legislative efforts in the US and internationally (ICANN) are underway to prohibit using domain names that could "confuse" consumers about the origin of the site. However, it is still unclear if this type of legislation itself is legal, as it will surely clash with the right to freedom of speech.

For the time being, there is plenty of opportunity to use the Web creatively to confuse, upset and challenges the powers that are. And they indeed feel challenged. This alone is a major success and it shows that nothing is inevitable.

Other political sites connected to rTmark:

Freiheitliche Partei, Austria

Liberal candidate Jeff Kennett, Australia

Anticopyright site

More info on rTmark:

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