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I Protest! How whitehouse.net came to be.

Although its now just for fun, whitehouse.net was originally started as a protest about the way Network Solutions handled Internet domain name registrations.

Part I: Discovery

Set the way-back machine to late 1995. Bill Herrin receives an e-mail message from his erstwhile companion, the Mailer Daemon. For those not already familiar with it, the Mailer Daemon is a part of a computer program. When an email message can't be delivered, the mail server software attempting delivery returns a message to the sender explaining what happened. This message is "from" mailer-daemon@whatever.server.failed. You get one every time you send an email that bounces, its the computer equivalent of finding your letter in your mailbox with "return to sender" stamped on it. The message Bill received was no exception.

Bill was notified that sombody@why.net had attempted to send an e-mail somewhere that was undeliverable.

This was strange. Bill owned and operated why.com and its mail server. A hobbyist with a 24-hour a day dialup modem connection, he'd registered the name in early '93. He and a couple of his friends had email there, and that was it. Who was this buffoon abusing his mail server, and why was he claiming an address at why.net instead of why.com?

A quick search of the 'net revealed that while retaining Bill's registration of why.com, Network Solutions had also registered why.net to a small Internet Service Provider in Texas. The "buffoon" was simply a confused customer.

The equivalence of the names why.com and why.net was obvious! Why had they been allowed to register why.net? Bill did what any unsatisfied customer would do: he typed up a complaint and sent it off to Network Solutions.

The reply was the epitome of blow-off letters. The meat of it was that .com and .net were completely different so get lost you pathetic whiner. They were more polite about it, but a blow-off is a blow-off.

"Those effing sons of guns," thought Bill, "they wouldn't blow me off like this if I was the President of the United States."

Another quick search of the 'net. Whitehouse.com was then registered to the apple sauce company, but sure enough, whitehouse.net was available. So, Bill did what any red-blooded American would do.

Bill typed up an e-mail message, warning that anyone with a hundred dollars could confuse the snot out of the American public by registering and misusing whitehouse.net. He warned against Network Solutions' heinous policy. He mailed it off to none other than the later self-proclaimed inventor of the Internet, then Vice President Al Gore.

Part II: Acquisition

Okay, fast forward a couple of months. Its now the begining of 1996. Bill and Chris Mincer, a friend since way back in high school, are considering starting a web authoring company. They're sitting and shooting the bull as old friends do, when Bill starts complaining about his experience with why.net.

At the end of the story, Chris had just one question: "Is it still available?"

"What, whitehouse.net? I don't know, let me check." So, Bill logged in to his computer and checked. Sure enough, still available. And no reply from the Vice President. So much for the power of electronic communication.

"Get it!" said Chris. So, Bill and Chris typed up the forms and emailed them off to hostmaster@internic.net. A week or two later, a misdirected email from a college student intended for the President preceded Network Solutions' notification that the registration had been completed by a couple of hours.

The email was a complaint from some college student at a religious university about Clinton's godlessness. It begged for a reply, and since Bill and Chris happened to be together at the time, they typed one up and sent it off.

Something about understanding him, and "feeling his pain." And oh yeah, we believed that thus far we'd had the most successful Presidency since Rutherford B. Hayes.

Bill and Chris got a good laugh out of that one, and another out of sending emails to a couple close friends from president@whitehouse.net. Then, they thought it would be a lark to set up a web site and see how many people happened on it by mistake. So, Chris came up with most of the jokes, they refined them together, and Bill put together a web site that looked almost like the real whitehouse site.

About a hundred people a day stumbled on it, if the web logs were any indication. So, Bill and Chris improved it, made the parody better. A month or so later, I believe it was in March, a reporter at the Washington Post happened on it. That's when the site hit the big time.

A story on the front page of the Washington Post's Metro section, continued on half a page inside complete with photos of Bill, Chris, and one of the web pages. And it went out on the A.P. news wire to get generally smaller stories in other papers. We peaked with several hundred thousand hits in a single day a couple days later when Rush Limbaugh mentioned the site on his radio program. Put this in perspective: It was 1996 and the site had less than 10 distinct web pages. A couple hundred thousand hits a day was seen by few web sites except Yahoo, and almost never for a web site containing less than 10 distinct pages.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Part III: Afterword

Aside from being a heck of a lot of fun, the experience with whitehouse.net has taught me two bits of wisdom:

  1. Yes, they really would blow you off like that if you were the President of the United States. As a matter of fact, they did.
  2. Yes, you can have the last laugh. The United States truly is the land of the free.



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