2/06/99- Updated 08:53 AM ET

Bush can't take a cyberjoke?

First, a 30-year-old computer consultant beat Texas Gov. George W. Bush to a coveted Web address, http://gwbush.com. Then, the scrappy squatter used the Web site to parody the GOP presidential frontrunner with a nasty fake image: Bush sniffing cocaine through a straw.

The Bush campaign, understandably, got mad. Trouble is, it also tried to get even.

Bush lawyers hauled Somerville, Mass., consultant Zack Exley before the Federal Election Commission, seeking to make him register as a "political committee," with all of the expense and bureaucratic ritual that entails. Asked about the site last May, Bush allowed "there ought to be limits to freedom."

The governor, it seems, needs a sense of humor and a refresher course in the First Amendment. But more broadly, his overreaction demonstrates the fragility of the e-world's budding prospects for reinvigorating the political process.

The Web's political promise is well documented. When anybody with a computer and a few bucks can broadcast opinions to the world, politics is likely to become more freewheeling, and more interesting. But not if candidates - or more ominously the government - use their power to squelch speech they don't like.

Already, there's plenty to make candidates uncomfortable. A site called hftp://www.aIbore.com derides the vice president, and another site - http://www.buchanan2022.com - caricatures the Reform Party hopeful as a Nazi brownshirt.

And why not? Cyber-firebrands can claim a heritage dating to the Republic's birth, Anonymous pamphleteers ridiculed

George I 11. And after Americans traded that George for their own, they pilloried him, too: Early cartoons portrayed George Washington as a jackass.

Now that the clamor has moved to the Internet, the FEC is struggling with how to regulate it - a tough task, if Exley's case is any example. Laws weren't written for the e-world.

Bush is trying to bring Exley under current FEC rules, which require reporting by those who spend more than $250 advocating for or against a candidate. The Bush campaign says all it wants is disclosure.

But the law wasn't meant to muzzle ordinary citizens' speech, and history shows arguments like Bush's won't stand close scrutiny. In 1989, an Ohio woman was fined $100 for refusing to sign her leaflets protesting a tax hike. Striking down the state law, the Supreme Court called anonymity "a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

Exley isn't the purest First Amendment symbol. He registered valuable Web addresses and tried to sell them to Bush's campaign, asking for $350,000.

But First Amendment issues seldom come in tidy packages. The real point is that the Internet, with cheap access to all, may offer the best leveling influence on the uneven political landscape now dominated by monied interests.

And a candidate's reaction to the cattiest of those sites offers voters something of value, too, a look at whether candidates can laugh, especially at themselves.

Response to the editorial:

12/06/99- Updated 08:52 AM ET

Pull plug on phony web sites

By Kenneth A. Gross

A new form of high-tech dirty tricks has emerged in the political marketplace. The Internet has become an effective vehicle for anonymously disseminating political trash on Web sites that masquerade as candidate Web sites. These phony sites are filled with scurrilous, unsavory and illicit materials presented in a fraudulent manner.

In the days of Watergate, Donald Segretti, the master of Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" campaign, would have had a field day from the comfort of his home. Segretti's distribution of false and misleading campaign literature, which disrupted Democratic campaigns, looks

like small potatoes next to today's high-tech version. What's worse, those who control the phony sites sometimes try to extort large sums of money from the candidate, pressuring him to purchase the Web site's name to stop the dissemination of damaging material.

Ironically, Mr. Segretti's activities helped bring about post Watergate reforms that were designed to prevent abuses now prevalent on the Internet. The law now requires that all public communications that advocate the election or defeat of a candidate state whether the communications are authorized by the candidate. Also, there is a specific provision in the federal election law that prohibits anyone from fraudulently misrepresenting himself as acting on behalf of a candidate. Amazingly, in the 25 years since Watergate, there have been no prosecutions under that provision.

High-tech dirty tricks are not negative campaigning. Negative campaigning is protected under the First Amendment. But the First Amendment doesn't protect phony and fraudulent Web sites that damage candidates through the use of dirty tricks.

It is not acceptable to tolerate these phony sites as innocuous or to dismiss them because "everyone is doing it." Everyone is not doing it. High-tech dirty tricks are as toxic (and far more pervasive) than their low-tech cousins. This is one place the government can play a clear and constructive role in regulating the Internet without interfering with First Amendment rights.

Kenneth A. Gross is a Washington lawyer and a former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.