May 20, 1999
GEORGE W. BUSH LASHES OUT AT PARODY WEBSITE
Bush learns about internet a moment too late
Contact: Ray Thomas (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Zack Exley (mailto:email@example.com)
Bush attorney Benjamin Ginsberg
(202-457-6405, fax 202-457-6315)
URLs: http://rtmark.com/gwbush/, http://rtmark.com/gwbush1/,
Bush letter to F.E.C., etc.: http://rtmark.com/bush.html
Each week, thousands of people seeking information on probable Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, type "gwbush" into their web browsers and end up at http://www.gwbush.com/.
Bush has tried hard for weeks to shut down the rogue site, which parodies Bush's official http://www.georgewbush.com/ and discusses his past cocaine use, as well as parodying U.S. politics in general. Bush's legal efforts began April 14 with a cease-and-desist letter claiming that gwbush.com violated copyright laws. Shortly thereafter, on May 10, Time Magazine reported that the Bush campaign had just purchased sixty additional domain names, including bushbites.com and bushsux.org, in an apparent attempt at damage control. Bush's most recent effort is a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission that may have widespread implications for free speech on the internet.
gwbush.com is owned by Zack Exley, a Boston computer consultant. Most of the content on the website was provided by RTMark, a group that specializes in calling attention to corporate subversion of the U.S. political and electoral process. gwbush.com is listed as an unofficial Bush campaign site in Yahoo! and elsewhere.
Bush's latest legal effort against gwbush.com, a complaint filed May 3 with the Federal Elections Commission, asserts that Exley has violated election laws by not registering as a political committee, and urges that the site's "fair market value" puts the endeavor well over the $1000 threshold that defines a political committee under election law. (At one point, Bush's counsel had asked Exley at what price he would sell his domains, which also include gwbush.org and gbush.org; Exley quoted $350,000.)
The F.E.C. case may set a legal precedent in the area of internet speech in electoral campaigns. One F.E.C. employee, who preferred not to be identified, said the commission has recently established a "special inquiry committee" to discuss possible regulation of sites such as gwbush.com.
"George W. Bush apparently thinks small-time folk should have to register with the government before exercising free speech on the internet," said Rita Mae Rakoczi, a lawyer and RTMark representative. "The implications of such a precedent could be quite serious."
RTMark and Mr. Exley represent the unlikely kind of collaboration the internet makes possible. Mr. Exley is a computer consultant to the Boston financial sector, and describes himself as "a Christian who loathes hypocrisy." RTMark is primarily devoted to anti-corporate activism, and counts the very companies that Mr. Exley works for as some of its targets.
By reserving the domain names, Exley initially hoped to sell them back to the Bush camp for a small profit. That changed, however, when he read news articles that discussed Bush's refusal to deny past cocaine use. His interest in the matter has since escalated into something of a crusade. "Bush won't deny he used cocaine, yet hundreds of thousands of people are serving very long sentences for equivalent or lesser crimes, including many in Texas [where Bush is governor]. Clinton just got away with perjury while a hundred people are in jail for that crime. Do we want our children to learn that a crime is only a crime if you don't have power?"
Exley first invited RTMark to provide content for gwbush.com after hearing about their "franchise" program, in which the group provides a tailor-made thematic website to anyone with an appropriate domain. According to RTMark spokesperson Ray Thomas, "Bush himself was originally a secondary issue for us. We just wanted to use gwbush.com as a platform to make various points about how corporations have subverted and sabotaged the political and electoral process, and hoped it could illustrate the low level to which campaigning has sunk. The more Bush has tried to get in our way, however, the more we've chosen to make the site a direct attack on his 'stealth' presidential campaign, and the worse that makes it for Bush." (RTMark's first version of gwbush.com is now archived at http://rtmark.com/gwbush.com/.)
While the controversy surrounding http://www.gwbush.com/ represents the first time RTMark has been drawn into political conflict, clumsy legal actions are nothing new to RTMark. In April of last year, for example, Geffen and BMG Music wrote RTMark and Illegal Art letters demanding they cease distribution of Deconstructing Beck, a CD of music made entirely from samples of Beck recordings. Those letters (posted at http://rtmark.com/lawletters.html) helped RTMark draw widespread attention to issues of fair use and copyright law with what had begun as an obscure release with a very limited audience.
The full text of the Bush lawyer's letter to the F.E.C., his cease-and-desist letter, and other materials can be found at http://rtmark.com/bush.html. The pages of http://www.gwbush.com/ that deal specifically with Bush's cocaine use can be found at http://www.gwbush.com/bushpramnesty.html and http://www.gwbush.com/bushq3.html. For more on Bush's domain-name buying frenzy, see http://biz.yahoo.com/rf/990513/bn8.html.
RTMark (http://rtmark.com/) uses its limited liability as a corporation to sponsor the sabotage of mass-produced products. One of RTMark's ultimate aims is to eliminate the principle of limited liability. Occasionally, as with http://www.gwbush.com/, RTMark participates in advocacy directly related to issues of corporate abuses of the political process.