Ron Paul vs. RonPaul.com: How Coalitions Crack Up in the Internet Age

The retired representative is at odds with fans over a site bearing his name. As permanent political campaigns come to the web, expect more fights like this.

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Reuters

The proprietors of RonPaul.com are not all pleased. Not only has their hero lodged a formal complaint against their ownership of their fan site, he's done it at the dread United Nations.

The UN's World Intellectual Property Organization handles domain name disputes for ICANN, and that's where the 12-term retired congressman is arguing that the people running RonPaul.com, as well as RonPaul.org, are piggybacking off his good name. Citing Hillary Clinton's 2005 successful fight to claim HillaryClinton.com, the complaint argues that "the words 'Ron Paul' have been synonymous with Dr. Paul's political writings and discourse," and goes on to say that "the only difference between them is the addition of the TLD suffixes '.com' and '.org.' which is irrelevant for the purposes" of domain name dispute resolution.

The obvious -- if existential -- defense that the RonPaul.com folks aren't really making is that Ron Paul, public figure, and RonPaul.com, the website, are not the same thing. One is an ornery obstetrician, and the other is a grassroots movement inspired by him and willing to do battle on his behalf, whether that's generating money bombs to get back in the public eye time and again or defending him with an unmatched vehemence and wordcount in the comment section of any blog post or article that mentions his name. At times, the movement has seemed far bigger than the man. What Haile Selassie was to Rastafarianism, Ron Paul has sometimes been to small government, and RonPaul.com has been a gathering point for that movement.

If one had to bet, the odds are good that Ron Paul will get RonPaul.com. ICANN tries to work these things out without them blowing up into antagonistic battles; that's why the resolution process exists. And after all, it's the guy's name. But the kerfuffle points to an interesting moment when a campaign's most valuable resources aren't office space or three-by-five cards but digital assets that live in the cloud and can be had for as little as the 10 bucks it probably cost to register RonPaul.com in the first place. There are real costs, to be sure. Just not the dollars and cents kind:

Back in 2007 we put our lives on hold for you, Ron, and we invested close to 10,000 hours of tears, sweat and hard work into this site at great personal sacrifice. We helped raise millions of dollars for you, we spread your message of liberty as far and wide as we possibly could, and we went out of our way to defend you against the unjustified attacks by your opponents. Now that your campaigns are over and you no longer need us, you want to take it all away -- and send us off to a UN tribunal?

The closest that the group comes to making the case that they are an essential part of what makes Ron Paul "Ron Paul" is when they talk about how their cache of institutional knowledge is intertwined with the public consciousness of what it means to be him:

After careful analysis of the available data, we are convinced that separating our grassroots website from RonPaul.com would be counterproductive. There are literally hundreds of thousands of inbound links directed to specific articles, videos and blog posts at RonPaul.com that would all be misdirected if you put up a new website at the domain.

That said, after the good doctor raised the contested domain during a segment on The Alex Jones Show early last month, they told him they could part with RonPaul.com for $250,000, which would include a mailing list of about 170,000 addresses. There's a fair chance that that sort of brokering didn't exactly endear the group to Paul, even though they called it a "liberty package" and offered free use of RonPaul.org, another domain they own. 

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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