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Canada Takes Down Prank Web Site, and 4500 Others

January 27, 2010


I recently saw The Yes Men Fix the World. Parody is hands down my favorite tool for political criticism, and the Yes Men are uncannily good at it. They stage elaborate hoaxes, which utilize web sites, pseudonyms, press releases, disguise, stagecraft, guile and wit, create public interest. Their mission is to hold organizations and individuals, CEOs, nations and corporations to account for their actions, or sometimes, their inactions.

The Yes Men have recently focused their attentions on Canada. In their recent film they prank GO Expo, a meeting of energy businessman in Calgary by “promoting” the imaginary energy supply they called “vivoleoum.” The pranksters created a disturbingly Holocaust-like allusion when they “revealed” that the fictional energy source was made from human remains, and satirically pitch the idea as a benefit of climate-change precipitated fatalities. It is in bad taste to be sure, but given the intention of confronting naked greed, their supporters feel that their ends justify the means.

Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, and their young international team also attracted the ire of the Government of Canada with their now famous antics around the last month’s Copenhagen climate-change summit. In the much-publicized stunt, they released a fake a press release attributed to Jim Prentice, which claimed that Canada had reversed its climate policy and was now going to pursue strict emission standards of 40% better than 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and pay up to 5% of the GDP to poor countries in order to assist them with their climate change crisis. To create verisimilitude, they created two official looking websites that “corroborated” the release, enviro-canada.ca and ec-gc.ca, which spoofed ec.gc.ca .

The Canadian Government responded, at first by wrongfully accusing Steven Guibault of Equiterre of masterminding the prank. Once they realized the truth, they sent an email to Serveloft, the German ISP that hosted the spoof sites, by making a questionable claim that the sites in question were being used for phishing and requesting their immediate takedown. In their haste to remove the sites, 4500 other sites that shared the Yes Men’s server were also blocked.

Normally the takedown of sites must occur with judicial oversight, unless there is sufficient reason to believe that they are being used for phishing scams. By claiming that these were phishing sites, the government bypassed the process of filing a claim through CIRA, or getting a court order to have the sites taken down. The ISP had clearance to remove them immediately without having to wait for judicial oversight. Internet law expert Michael Geist suggested that by defining the sites as phishing sites, the federal government substituted one hoax for another.

Though I could not find any reference to phishing in the Criminal Code of Canada, a widely accepted definition is outlined in a 2006 report of the Binational Working Group on Cross-Border Mass Marketing Fraud to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada and the Attorney General of the United States:

“The term phishing is a general term for the creation and use by criminals of e-mails and websites – designed to look like they come from well-known, legitimate and trusted businesses, financial institutions and government agencies – in an attempt to gather personal, financial and sensitive information.”

The prank was clearly a case of imitation, but there was never any attempt to gather personal information. Sadly, unlike in the U.S., parody in Canada is not explicitly protected under fair use, which is possibly why Whitehouse spoof sites have existed for years without incurring this kind of a reaction.

The Canadian Government probably could have had the sites taken down quietly and quickly using legitimate channels, but instead, they used an alarmist strong-arm technique, causing a melee in the bargain. In doing so, they made themselves look reactionary and defensive to the point of opposing free speech – stung by this affront to their inadequate climate change policy.

I can respect that not everyone agrees with such guerrilla media techniques, and may see their antics as being dishonest at worst and childish at best. However, I admire the Yes Men’s tactics for their creativity and audacity. Parody is not supposed to be nice. It holds up the mirror, and forces us to look.

Canada’s Government had every attribute of a prime Yes Men target; secrecy, arrogance and a disregard for public opinion. The prank forced the Conservatives to just come right out and say that Canada was not going to set meaningful targets or show any leadership.

Regardless of propriety of the Yes Men’s tactics, the resulting response was a damning indictment of how our federal government treats critical stances, not just in Canada, but beyond her borders.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    January 28, 2010 8:29 pm

    Thanks for this timely post – and good for you for rightly pointing out what increasingly seems the defining characteristic of our current Prime Minister and his government: the Strong Man and his strong man tactics. Somewhere there is a Myers-Brigg (i know , i know) essay on the “type” that is the Strong Man and how the very worst that can be done, is to suffer laughter. Parody is always the enemy of Big State tactics, events, strategems, and spectacle. Artists know this. Once, many years ago, in the New Yorker, I saw a cartoon, about a clandestine arts group that would do “naughty” but not destructive little acts of intervention to official statues and monuments, in Rome. Ah, under Mussolini. That took courage. I’m not a big fan of a too harsh, too cynical, moderne-method type of paroday and although I appreciate the current practitioners, such as Jon Stewart, I don’t really feel easy with laughing at someone else’s expense. But the reaction of our government seems disporportionate to the act. Another telling symptom of too much Strong-Man-itis?
    “I admire the Yes Men’s tactics for their creativity and audacity. Parody is not supposed to be nice. It holds up the mirror, and forces us to look.”

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