Don't mess with Wal-Mart

The bar code-hacking Web site Re-Code.com shuts down, though not without firing some last-second salvos at evil chain store hegemonic domination.


Katharine Mieszkowski
April 17, 2003 11:51PM (UTC)

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.

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"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.

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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."

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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.

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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."

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Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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