Beating Around the Bush
How a Little Guy Made Big News
Buying a Web domain: $70. Building a Web site: $30. Getting an Internet connection: $20. Changing the way politics is seen on the Net: priceless. In December 1998, Zack Exley, a then-29-year-old database programmer and former union organizer from Sommerville, Massachusetts, discovered that the domain name gwbush.com had not been bought up by the Bush campaign. "My friend came up with this idea of making a copy of Bush's official site -- just a perfect copy -- and someday they'd stumble upon it and freak out," explains Exley. So he plunked down $70 for the domain name and contacted RTMark, San Francisco's culture-jamming group that builds look-alike corporate Web sites. "It was totally Beavis & Butt-head," says Exley, "just a couple of guys bored and coming up with a way to get a phone call from the Bush people." But instead, Exley created the most infamous political parody site on the Net, and before you could say "dubya," he found himself embroiled in a war that may change the rules of the United States Federal Election Committee.
It is another installment in the ongoing debate over domain names, in which a man who bought Veronica.org for his two-year-old daughter was sued (unsuccessfully) by Archie Comics. In which online giant eToys tried (also unsuccessfully) to shut down a group of Zurich-based artists who owned the domain name eToy. In November, Congress passed the Trademark Cyberpiracy Prevention Act, attempting to put a ban on so-called cybersquatters -- the first case to cite this new law is against a New York Yankees fan who has owned and operated a fan site at NewYorkYankees.com since 1997.
One of the key questions for Exley's site is whether it is a personal expression of his thoughts published online like an editorial or advertisement for a political perspective with the purpose of influencing voter opinion. If it's a personal expression, it's protected by the First Amendment. If it's a political advertisement, then it's under the jurisdiction of the FEC, and Exley is subject to their rules, regulations, and filing fees. We spoke on the phone to Exley, who is coming to town for SXSW Interactive to sit in on a panel discussing what is sure to persevere as a hot-button online issue: What to do when legal actions threaten your Web site.
Austin Chronicle: How did this all begin?
Zack Exley: I read this article in Newsweek where they asked Bush about his cocaine use, but not directly -- like, "what if someone asks you about it?" and he said, "I've grown up, it's irrelevant." And I'm thinking he's in favor of these long sentences for drug use and it's no big deal when I do them, but when other people do them we should put them away for 20 or 40 years. I was just thinking it might be cool to make an informative page on Bush -- like I'm doing now -- but it might be a waste of time. Like who would see it? So my expectation was I'd get a good story to tell friends when the Bush people would call.
AC: But then things took a different turn.
ZE: I got a cease-and-desist letter saying the Bush people were going to sue me for copyright infringement. I was a bit worried at first, but then thought we might as well have some fun. I put up a one-page thing about the whole cocaine deal, trying to make a point about Bush's hypocrisy. That ticked them off so much they filed this thing against the Federal Election Committee. It's a totally bizarre thing. I still don't understand why they wanted to make this big story about shutting down some little Web site. It's setting a whole precedent. Then, suddenly, Bush says the real reason they were attacking my site was because of pornography. They gave out URLs of porn sites that didn't even exist. That made me really mad because it was just slanderous. But plenty of news stories said Bush was in the wrong, and they backed down.
AC: Weren't you ever concerned you were getting in over your head?
ZE: Each time he made an attack it did make me nervous for a few days, but when the dust settled I realized I wasn't in any danger. Like with the FEC, maybe there'll be fines and things, but it'll be this test case for politics on the Internet, and there's plenty of people willing to pay the cost of my defense now.
AC: What kind of impact do you think all this has made on the campaign?
ZE: I don't think my site in itself has had a big impact or changed enough votes to make a difference, but I think all Web sites out there that individuals like me are running -- collectively we have made a difference. It's not easy to measure, but the Internet is a place where ordinary people are making the news and analysis and putting their opinions out there. It's not just NBC.com or CNN.com -- take a site like NHPrimarysource.com. This guy was giving really good commentary about the New Hampshire primary. He was going around talking to people and in doing so he became a news source. In Texas, BushWatch.com provides a lot of commentary from inside the state political scene.
I think the Internet has the power to let ordinary people take power away from the official media. I think it's true that Salon.com and Slate.com are going to get the biggest audiences, but their audiences are also going to noncommercial sites run by ordinary people. Eventually, that's going to change the debate. It's already having that effect. The Internet is not a broadcast medium, it has to go person to person. It's inherently democratic. It's only the ideas that are useful or enjoyable that make it on the Internet.
The cool thing about Web pages is that it's nonpervasive, it's not coming in the middle of your favorite TV show forcing you to watch it, and you know you're influencing votes. It has to be something good and it actually has to be saying something that people are looking for and involved in some kind of community. But I think paid advertising in terms of politics on the Web should be regulated the same as on TV.
AC: You realize that you're speaking at SXSW the day before our primary election here?
ZE: You're shitting me. I didn't know.
AC: Do you think you'll attend a Bush rally while here?
ZE: I don't think so. Maybe, if I could meet him in person. What the -- Sure! I'll be there!