Satirical Web Site Poses Political Test
Facing Legal Action From Bush, Creator Cites U.S. Tradition of Parody
By Terry M. Neal
Www.gwbush.com is not, needless to say, the official Bush campaign Web site (which is www.georgewbush.com).
And that's exactly the point, says the site's creator, Zack Exley, a 29-year-old computer programmer from Boston.
Www.gwbush.com is so outlandish that anyone would spot it as a parody site, he says. Exley sees himself as honoring the great tradition of political parody, which can be traced at least as far back in this country to the days when patriots pilloried King George III as an incompetent tub of lard.
The Republican front-runner does not share Exley's sense of humor. He is taking legal action.
While the vast majority of the hundreds of political parody or protest sites receive little notice, the Exley case demonstrates how under the right circumstances, a lone dissenting voice in cyberspace can ruffle even the biggest feathers and how the Internet is playing a new role in the political process.
When asked at a news conference in May what he thought about the site, Bush let loose, saying it was produced by a "garbage man" and suggesting that "there ought to be limits to freedom"--a line Bush's online critics have vowed to never let the world forget.
By then, Bush's lawyers had warned Exley that he faced a lawsuit for his Web site's use of photos lifted from the copyrighted official Bush campaign site.
The Bush campaign also filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, accusing Exley of violating election laws and demanding that he operate under the rules and regulations of a political committee. FEC officials said they could not comment on the complaint but acknowledged last week that they are reviewing it.
Exley said Bush's intent is to intimidate and shut him down--a charge the Bush campaign denies. And Internet enthusiasts and free-speech advocates are closely monitoring the case because of its First Amendment implications.
Said Exley, who has reveled in his newfound semi-fame: "I think this says a lot. . . . I mean, to get so worked up over some guy's Web site! And for him to say on television that there should be limits to freedom. He pretty much made a fool out of himself." Exley said that while there are parody sites targeting all major presidential candidates, only Bush has made a major stink.
Indeed, the number of parody or protest Web sites has proliferated. Www.algore-2000.org opens with an official-looking letter from Vice President Gore that says, "Working against the American people, we have sparked moral decay across our country." Www.buchanan2000.com asks "Are you sure you fit into Pat Buchanan's vision of America?" before listing his most controversial quotes.
The headline on www.hillaryno.com, an anti-Hillary Clinton Web site, says "U.S. Senate: For Proven Leaders, Not a Proving Ground." The headline on www.rudyno.com, a site against New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, says, "U.S. Senate for leaders, not HotHeads."
There are dozens of other Web sites that operate essentially as political rumor clearinghouses, with some information credited to legitimate news sources. For instance, www.realchange.org keeps a "Skeleton Closet" that includes "All the Dirt on All the Candidates." Go to Bill Bradley's closet and "click on the allegation of your choice" such as "the King of Bundling: Pioneered ways to evade campaign finance laws."
Bush's reaction produced the exact opposite of what he intended. Exley boasts that his site has had more than 1 million visits since May.
"Bush drew attention to it and legitimized it just by responding to it," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, an online political strategies firm. Officials from several other campaigns said they avoid drawing attention to critical sites for just that reason.
"Our philosophy is the best thing we can do is draw more attention to our site, www.billbradley.com, not whatever else is out there," Bradley spokesman Tony Wyche said.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said: "Clearly, what used to happen with people handing out negative brochures and things like that at campaign events is now taking part on the Internet. That's politics. Most voters are savvy enough to be able to distinguish."
Exley, a computer consultant and registered independent, said he wants to reveal Bush's hypocrisy. Exley said it makes him angry that Bush refuses to answer whether he ever used drugs as a young man, saying it is irrelevant now that he has "grown up." Yet he has worked to toughen penalties for even minor drug possession and to lower to 14 the age for trying juveniles as adults.
Exley's site is filled with caustic, sometimes witty faux press releases. Click on Amnesty 2000, for instance, to read about the governor's latest policy proposal: "Governor George W. Bush, Jr. today met with senior law enforcement officials, religious leaders, criminal justice academics and federal prison inmates to discuss a bold policy initiative called 'Amnesty 2000.' As President, Bush would pardon convicts who have 'grown up' but are still serving long sentences for possession of cocaine and other illegal drugs."
Bush attorney Benjamin L. Ginsberg, asked to discuss the First Amendment implications of the governor's FEC complaint, raised his voice in irritation: "How is it a First Amendment issue? It is NOT a First Amendment issue."
Ginsberg said the goal was not to shut Exley down. Because Exley's site at one point urged voters to "Just say no to a former cocaine user for president," he clearly was advocating Bush's defeat and must be regulated as a political campaign committee, Ginsberg said. "The idea behind this is, if he's going to act like a political committee, he should have to reveal his funding," he said.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes offered a different explanation for the complaint: "There were links to pornographic sites on there. That's the real reason we did this. We just cannot have the governor's name associated with something like this." Exley vehemently denied Hughes's allegation and suggested it smacked of a desperate attempt to smear him.
Jack Dempsey, senior staff counsel for Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit Internet civil liberties group, said an FEC ruling in Bush's favor could have a chilling effect on political parody on the Web because it would greatly complicate such endeavors. "The Bush campaign is not in this for good government reasons," he said. "They're in it because they felt they could burden Exley with all these disclosure requirements."
Exley expressed a similar sentiment: "I'm playing the same role as any other publication. I'm satirizing Bush. I'm providing political commentary."
He said if forced to register as a political action committee, "I wouldn't be able to do this. You really can't do it without getting a lawyer and an accountant. If people who want to talk politics on the Web have to register with the government, they won't do it and this won't be an area of free expression anymore."
George Washington University associate professor Michael Cornfield, who runs the Democracy Online Project, a nonpartisan Internet advocacy project, said his group is working on a solution that would create a national registry of official campaign Web sites with the FEC and state election officials that could be made readily available online.
"That way you don't have to complain about people doing parodies of you," Cornfield said. "You don't have to go attacking the First Amendment."
Bush has shown a preoccupation with the Internet's potential to harm him. In February, months before Bush announced his candidacy, his top political adviser, Karl Rove, registered dozens of potentially off-color or pejorative domain names--at $70 a pop--so one could use them to create Web sites that parody Bush.
Congress took up, but put off, legislation to deal with the issue, often called cybersquatting--in which someone registers an individual or company name with the hopes of profiting from it.
Ginsberg says Exley offered to sell the rights to gwbush.com for $300,000 before lowering his demand to $80,000--a price the Bush campaign still won't pay.
Exley does not deny that, but insists it was the Bush campaign that contacted him and asked his price. "I was just having fun with them," he said. "But I mean, obviously, I would have sold them the domain name."
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