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DOW vs Parody Websites



But companies find it harder to stifle criticism

December 13, 2002

Two giant companies are struggling to shut down parody websites that portray them unfavorably, interrupting internet use for thousands in the process, and filing a lawsuit that pits the formidable legal department of PR giant Burson-Marsteller against a freshman at Hampshire College.

The activists behind the fake corporate websites have fought back, and obtained substantial publicity in the process. Fake websites have been used by activists before, but and represent the first time that such websites have successfully been used to publicize abuses by specific corporations.

A December 3 press release originating from one of the fake sites,, explained the “real” reasons that Dow could not take responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe, which has resulted in an estimated 20,000 deaths over the years ( “Our prime responsibilities are to the people who own Dow shares, and to the industry as a whole,” the release stated. “We cannot do anything for the people of Bhopal.” The fake site immediately received thousands of outraged e-mails (

Within hours, the real Dow sent a legal threat to's upstream provider, Verio, prompting Verio to shut down the fake Dow's ISP for nearly a day, closing down hundreds of unrelated websites and bulletin boards in the process. The fake Dow website quickly resurfaced at an ISP in Australia: (

In a comical anticlimax, Dow then used a little-known domain-name rule to take possession of (, another move which backfired when amused journalists wrote articles in newspapers from The New York Times to The Hindu in India (, and sympathetic activists responded by cloning and mirroring the site at many locations, including, and, with a twist, Dow continues to play whack-a-mole with these sites (at least one ISP has received veiled threats).

Burson-Marsteller, the public relations company that helped to “spin” Bhopal, has meanwhile sued college student Paul Hardwin ( for putting up a fake Burson-Marsteller site,, which recounted how the PR giant helped to downplay the Bhopal disaster. Burson-Marsteller's suit against Hardwin will be heard next week by the World Intellectual Property Organization (

Hardwin, unable to afford a lawyer, has composed a dryly humorous 57-page rebuttal to the PR giant's lawsuit ( On page 7, for instance, the student notes that Burson-Marsteller's “stated goal is `to ensure that the perceptions which surround our clients and influence their stakeholders are consistent with reality.'” Hardwin goes on to assert that his satirical domain is doing precisely that, by publicizing “academic and journalistic materials about Burson-Marsteller's involvement with and relationship to, for example, Philip Morris and the National Smoker's Alliance, a consumer front group designed to create the appearance of public support for big-tobacco policies; Union Carbide and the deaths of 20,000 people following the 1984 disaster in Bhopal; and political regimes such as that of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and more recently Saudi Arabia following the events of September 11; and to properly associate them with the relevant Trademark so that they may be understood accordingly by Internet users.”

In response to the suit's claim that “a substantial degree of goodwill is associated with [the Burson-Marstellar Trademark]” Hardwin offers much “evidence to the contrary” including “a newspaper headline in which the Complainant is characterized as `the Devil.'”

The primary goal of RTMark ( is to publicize corporate subversion of the democratic process. Just like other corporations, it achieves its aims by any and all means at its disposal. RTMark has previously helped to publicize websites against political parties (, political figures (, and entities like the World Trade Organization ( and the World Economic Forum (

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