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

By Nancy Scola

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.

ronpauldotcom.banner.reuters.jpg.jpg
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. 

There's some truth to the idea that they have demonstrated a level of digital savvy and success that isn't evident in the congressman's immediate circle. On the same show, Paul complained that in the meantime he's "going to have to have RonPaulsHomepage.com." But he didn't own that website, either. The domain was registered the same day, presumably by someone who's not a good friend or close ally of the congressman's: The only thing up on the site is the tagline, "The story of a little man who fools many and continues to do so."

This wrangling over digital assets between politicians and their otherwise-allied supporters isn't new. Back in 2007, the Obama campaign got MySpace to hand over the keys to the "Barack Obama" page that an L.A. paralegal had maintained in support of the candidate for two and a half years. There was a more of a surgical-strike precision in that case; Obama reportedly even called the guy to offer thanks for his involuntary cooperation.

But Paul's struggle offers some clues to what Obama will have to contend with as he and his allies try to ramp up the next phase of what they casually shorthand the "Obama organization." Six years in, BarackObama.com remains the Internet home of all those affiliated efforts. (Asked about this a few years after Obama's first election, staffers argued that it made sense, since the president remained the vessel for their hopes and dreams.) The Obama organization owns BarackObama.com outright, but there's a good chance it will still face some of the same challenges as the president's allies try to figure out how you go from an army of loyal foot soldiers to the sort of diffuse, grassroots network of backers they've talked about.

Marrying the political objectives of millions to the political ambitions of one man or woman is enormously challenging and a little weird, but the compression of a campaign has always done a good job of hiding it, and once the campaign is over, it hasn't mattered. But the Internet erases many of the practical reasons for ending the relationship when the campaign does. There will be breakups, then, and some of them will no doubt be messy ones.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/ron-paul-vs-ronpaulcom-how-coalitions-crack-up-in-the-internet-age/273059/