Don't Mess with Wal-Mart

The art graduate students behind Re-Code.com said it was satire. Wal-Mart said the site promoted fraud.

But now the debate over the Web site is one for the culture-jamming alternative history books, since the pranksters behind the site yanked it off the Web on Wednesday night, saying that they feared legal action.

"Corporations win again!" announced a headline on what remains of the site -- an article explaining the reasons for the shutdown. .

"We got a little scared yesterday," said "Nathan Hactivist," the co-creator of the site, who is a 26-year-old art graduate student in upstate New York. "If we wanted to fight a legal battle with a corporation like that, right or wrong doesn't matter, legal or illegal doesn't matter -- the cost of fighting that battle does."

A parody of Priceline.com's "name your own price" Web site, the Re-Code site instructed shoppers how to print their own bar codes to replace the prices on retail goods with cheaper ones. It also maintained a database of bar code numbers, contributed by visitors to the site.

Nathan Hactivist said that the goal of the site was to "stimulate critical discussion where there was none before in a creative way," by parodying the revolutionary rhetoric used by companies like Priceline. "We're supposed to believe as consumers that a no-minimum balance account at Washington Mutual is an act of revolution, and we don't buy it," he said.

Parody or no, Wal-Mart took the site as an instruction manual for bar code-enabled shoplifters. "We were just very concerned about what appeared to be an open invitation to steal from Wal-Mart and other stores," Tom Williams, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said. "We can't let anything affect our bottom line."

The company sent a cease-and-desist order to the site dated April 2, accusing it of "encouraging and facilitating theft and fraud against Wal-Mart."

Re-Code.com is a project of the Carbon Defense League and Conglomco.org, two artist and activist collectives affiliated with the "tactical media network" Hactivist.com. Wal-Mart is the U.S.'s largest private employer with profits of more than $13 billion just last year.

"Needless to say, their legal team far outweighed ours," said a statement on the Re-Code.com site.

Wal-Mart's Williams said he "would not speculate" whether Wal-Mart would pursue any legal action against the site or drop the matter, now that the site has been closed.

The activists behind the site declared a quasi-victory, even while admitting defeat.

"We feel that we have accomplished our goals to a large extent and the tough tactics of global chain stores have helped to demonstrate to the world just how much they care for you the customer."

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon Technology.

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