EuropaBio, the powerful coalition of European biotech companies, has unsuccessfully tried to shut down the Danish anti-biotech website http://www.insanex.dk. The site, a brilliant example of creative internet-activism, introduces Insanex Genomix, a spoof 'life-science' company. The site presents Insanex as a proud member of EuropaBio, grateful for the lobby group's achievements in molding European Union biotech legislation in the interests of its member corporations. Last October, this provoked EuropaBio to hire a law firm and threaten the webmasters with a lawsuit unless the site was shut down. Encouraged by their success in getting the biotech lobby giant to show its ugly face, the activists that masterminded Insanex are determined to keep the site alive.
At first sight, the website looks like the typical glossy site of a biotech company. Indeed, many visitors navigating the pages will take Insanex Genomix for a genuine 'life-science' company involved in some very far-reaching gene technology (genomics: the science of the genome, the organisms' total genetic material).  The 'products' offered by Insanex are a mirror of what the near future might bring as a result of lax regulations promoted by the biotech industry, already to a large extent in place. One application of genomics could be human cloning, which in contrast to the cloning of animals, is still forbidden by international regulation.  Insanex Genomix takes the visitor one step further into the future by offering human cloning services directly to customers. After filling in an online form, the website promises, you can spend a week in the company's Caribbean resort, while Insanex uses a sample of your genes to produce the child of your dreams!
Grateful for the EU Life Patents Directive
The website does not only present Insanex products, but also expresses its delight with the European Union's generous legal framework for biotech companies. Insanex is particularly happy with the EU Directive on Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions, better known as the Life Patents Directive, and its swift transposition into Danish law. The EU's Life Patents Directive, adopted in 1998, means a sweeping extension of European patent law to permit the patenting - and thus ownership - of life itself. This extremely controversial piece of legislation allows for the patenting of genes, cells, plants, animals, human body parts and genetically modified or cloned human embryos. The patentability of life has opened up a whole new area for corporate profits and biotech companies are currently engaged in a race to patent genetic material. The part of the website that caused EuropaBio's fury was the section 'Associations and Alliances', where Insanex lists itself as a member of EuropaBio and praises the lobby group and all its members for their lobbying efforts to influence EU legislation. The website explains that "Insanex Genomics is a strong supporter of the lobbying efforts made by EuropaBio to further genetic technology. Over the last decade Insanex Genomics and our partners have allocated vast economic resources to shape the European legislation on biotechnology."
EuropaBio was created in the autumn of 1996 and brings together over 600 companies, including the largest biotech corporations in Europe (such as Aventis, Bayer, Nestle, Novartis, Mosanto Europe and Unilever), as well as national biotech federations representing small and medium-sized enterprises.  The Brussels-based lobby group, working closely with the European Commission (EC), played a key role in pushing biotechnology into a central position in the EU's overall economic strategy.  The group was a major player in the battle over the EU's Life Patent Directive, raging from 1995 to 1998. After a first version of the directive, heavily biased towards corporate interests, was rejected in 1995 by the European Parliament, EuropaBio pushed hard for the second, virtually identical version that was adopted in 1998. The Insanex website highlights the role of Smithkline Beecham, which spent massive amounts of money on lobbying, including on manipulating patient interest groups into promoting the corporate agenda for the Life Patents Directive. 
EuropaBio's power play
On October 16, Insanex Genomix received a letter signed by EuropaBio's lawyers, later found to be the law firm Covington & Burling. The UK-based lawyers threatened the webmasters with legal action. The letter complains that Insanex Genomix claims to be a member of EuropaBio. "According to our client's information", the letter reads, "the web site is a fiction that has been created to emphasize the alleged consequences of the new Danish patent law, in particular regarding to patenting human genes. The web site, its fictitious nature and the political purpose behind it have been publicised in Denmark and abroad." After declaring the website illegal on several accounts, the letter requests the server to "take expeditious action to disable access to the Insanex website" and warns that EuropaBio plans to take legal action against the web site operator because of the damage caused. The lobby groups' move is a wild attempt to silence its critics, which would not stand much chance if it came to a court case. Except for the listing of Insanex as a member of EuropaBio, the rest of the website's content clearly falls within legal limits of freedom of expression, both the entirely factual information about the power games played by the European biotech lobby and the hard-hitting parody on the profit-obsessed 'life-science' industry.
Despite the intimidating letter, the Insanex site remains accessible and updated regularly. The 'company' responded with a press release on November 20, in which Insanex's Executive Director expresses his desire to re-establish the good relations with EuropaBio, because of the lobby groups' "groundbreaking work in establishing the human body as an emerging new market for commercial activity".  Insanex's communication manager resigns from his position and points out that there has been a misunderstanding about the status of Insanex's membership of EuropaBio and admits that he "was too keen on pushing Insanex into the prestigious circles of the biotech industry." Insanex, meanwhile, does no longer feature as a EuropaBio member on the website, but the press release announces that the 'company' is about to finalise its application for EuropaBio membership, this time getting all the procedures right. As a sign of its good will, Insanex offers to host the next EuropaBio Congress, pointing out that the groups Fourth Annual Congress - scheduled to take place in Edinburgh last October - "was sadly cancelled due to lack of public vision and commercial sponsoring." 
When asked about the Insanex case, EuropaBio's communication manager Paul Muys limits his reply to stating that "it is a (sick) joke of an anti-biotechnology group operating in Denmark, which usurps our name."  "After we forwarded the letter we heard nothing and let the matter rest", says Muys, adding that "the name of the website clearly refers to 'insanity' and nobody seems to take it seriously". Wishful thinking, in fact, as Insanex has received substantial media coverage, particularly in Denmark, and over 120.000 hits on its websites in recent months. Mr. Muys remained silent about the dubious methods used by the law firm Covington & Burling to gather information on Insanex Genomix and who is behind the project. One of the EuropaBio lawyers got hold of the information by contacting a Danish radio journalist who had interviewed Insanex and pretending to be a BBC journalist.
Apart from the shaky juridical basis, it is no surprise that EuropaBio refrains from executing the threat of a lawsuit to close down the Insanex site. EuropaBio has in recent years carefully steered free of controversial publicity, which such a court case would certainly be. The background is of course the ongoing backlash against genetically modified food in many European countries. In designing its communications strategy, EuropaBio makes use of the services of Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest public relations firm and self-proclaimed specialist in 'perception management'. In a 1997 strategy paper, Burson-Marsteller advised the European biotech industry to stay away from public debate on the controversial issues of environment and health risks, which it referred to as 'killing fields', leaving it to those charged with public trust in these areas, such as politicians and regulators. EuropaBio has since then followed a non-confrontational strategy, in an attempt to de-politicise the biotech debate. This only makes it more remarkable that the activists that initiated Insanex have managed to get the lobby giant out of the bush, an example of the huge potential of using the internet as a tool for creative anti- corporate activism.
For an exhaustive list of campaign groups and resources worldwide see the A SEED Europe GE-Resistance website.
1: Genomics can involve mapping out the whole genome, such as the Human Genome Project, or identifying genes and various combinations that might prove useful, as defined in http://www.groundup.org | Back to Text |
2: Human cloning means artificially producing two or more genetically identical individuals from the cells of another individual, same source. | Back to Text |
4: See "Europe, Inc. Regional & Global Restructuring and the Rise of Corporate Power", CEO. Pluto Press, 2000. pp 79-88. | Back to Text |
5: "We recognize the tremendous efforts made by Smithkline Beecham to secure patents on life. They alone have spent 30 million ECU on their lobbying campaign regarding the EU Directive on Biotechnology." It is well documented how succesfully Smithkline Beecham, after transferring considerable financial resources, changed the position of the two patient groups that had at first opposed the directive (the Genetic Interest Group, GIG, and the European Alliance of Genetic Support Groups, EAGS), and its spokeperson Alistair Kent. See for example "Europe, Inc.", pp 85- 87. | Back to Text |
8: Email correspondence with Paul Muys, 9 March 2001. | Back to Text |
|< Previous Article||Table of Contents||Next Article >|