May 21, 1999
Bush Campaign Asks Government to Go After Critical Web Site
By REBECCA FAIRLEY RANEY
n one of the first requests to spur a Federal regulatory agency to move against a political Web site, a lawyer for the exploratory committee of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against owners of a Web site that is strongly critical of the potential Presidential candidate.
The complaint, filed with Federal regulators on May 3, stipulates that the owner of the gwbush.com site should be required to post a disclaimer identifying who built the site and to file with the FEC as a political action committee and list the amount of money spent on the site.
The creators of the unofficial Bush Web site said they spent nothing on the endeavor. But the owner of the Web address, known as a domain name, once tried unsuccessfully to sell the name to the committee for $350,000. By naming a dollar figure, the owner set a market value on the Web site and therefore must disclose the site to the FEC as a political contribution, said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, the Bush committee's lawyer.
Officials at the FEC confirmed that they had received the complaint, but would not say more, citing a policy of not commenting on ongoing cases. It could be months before the agency takes any action.
The complaint was the Bush committee's second action against the site. In April, Ginsberg sent the site's creators a cease-and-desist letter. At the time, the site closely imitated the campaign's official Web site. Creators copied the official site's banner, pictures and text, and wrote their own commentary about what they viewed as society's censorship of political speech as well. Ginsberg's letter called the site a "cavalier usurpation" of the official Web site, and warned the site's creators of violation of copyright and trademark infringement laws.
Mindy Tucker, a Bush committee spokeswoman, said the confusion had been so strong that reporters frequently confused the unofficial site with the official site, and that the address of the unofficial site, which contained links to material that committee officials considered pornographic, had even appeared in print.
The site's creators removed the look-alike Web site after receiving the letter in April, then replaced it with a site that was more directly critical of Bush, raising questions about his past. Ernest Lucha, a spokesman for the site designers at the New York organization RTMmark.com, which built the site, said the Bush committee's action simply proved their point about corporate control of political speech.
"Reacting to it in such a legal way is really the stupidest thing they can do," he said. "They're trying to curtail free speech. They're being completely unprincipled and amoral."
The group RTMark.com exists for the purpose of raising questions about corporate trademarks. The group has also built look-alike Web sites for Shell and McDonald's, with the purpose of encouraging action to bring attention to corporate controls, Lucha said. Neither of those companies has taken action against RTMark.com.
"We use these events as springboards to express our viewpoint," Lucha said.
The Bush campaign's action was taken not against RTMark.com, but against Zack Exley, the official owner of the domain name gwbush.com.
In an e-mail interview on Thursday, Exley predicted that Americans would "intensely resent the Bush campaign's actions."
But Ginsberg said the site was a case in which "it crosses the line from political commentary and parody."
"It was our pictures and words," he said. "We enjoy puckish parody as much as the next folks. This is not an attempt to shut down that."
This site is different from other sites critical of the Governor, he said, because "it urges the defeat of the Governor and spreads a false libelous charge in the process."
"If you're going to do that, you have to play by the Federal Election Commission rules."
Lawyers for the commission ruled in November that Web sites that direct readers to vote for or against a candidate must also include a disclaimer that identifies who built the site. Also, if designers spend more than $250, they must file forms to disclose the contribution the same way that political action committees do. Sites that are strongly critical of candidates but that do not urge voters to take action are exempt from the Federal rules.
By contrast, a site like HillaryNo, which is critical of Hillary Clinton in the face of her possible run for Senate in New York, does not run afoul of the ruling because a disclaimer is posted that identifies the source of the site as "Friends of [Rudolph] Giuliani, Mayor of New York," her potential opponent. The site was built by Campaign Solutions, a political consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.
The FEC ruling about independent Web sites, however, has attracted the criticism that Federal regulators are stifling the political expression that inexpensive Internet publishing makes possible. Critics argue that the ruling chills political speech online because it requires individuals, in effect, to hire lawyers and accountants to fill out paperwork for Federal regulators.
The purchase of political domain names became a common game in the last year. Politicians' names have been targeted by domain speculators who hoped to sell the names back to campaigns. Political property has been considered hot for two reasons: Politicians have an interest in controlling information associated with their names, and they cannot trademark their names. Speculators in recent years have lost their investments in corporate domain names because of court rulings that found they were infringing on trademarks.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas
Nonetheless, in the name of protecting the candidate's name online, Karl Rove, Bush's Austin-based political consultant, has purchased at least 60 domain names that rang both critical and sympathetic to the Governor.
Online criticism "is one of the new and emerging issues that any campaign faces," Ginsberg said.
He stressed that in the case of the site subject to the FEC complaint, "we haven't tried to shut down the site. We have not said anything about any of the materials on the site. All we're asking is that they disclose who their backers are and how much they spent."
"They want to play in politics, they have to play in politics by the same rules everyone else does."
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Rebecca Fairley Raney at firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes your comments