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Scientology vs. the Internet

The online "war" between Scientology and its critics has become known as Scientology versus the Internet. Since late 1994, Scientology has used various legal tactics to stop the distribution of "secret" documents written by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. It has involved police, lawyers, and courtrooms in at least four countries on two different continents, and the ongoing struggle has spilled into nearly every major country connected to the Internet.

Scientology claims its moves against online critics are in defense of its copyrighted materials. Court decisions have technically backed up these arguments, though Scientology has been accused of using heavy-handed methods to prevent distribution of the documents. Critics of Scientology counter with the claim that Scientology is a confidence trick, and that these "secret" writings prove that Scientology is breaking the law and committing medical fraud through the use of methods described in the documents. They claim that Scientology is abusing copyright law, using it to silence critics of the organization who are trying to expose its alleged criminal activities.

The early days

The newsgroup alt.religion.scientology was created in 1991 by a college student, in response to the 1991 Time magazine cover story, "The Thriving Cult of Power and Greed". Debate over the pros and cons of Scientology waxed and waned on the newsgroup through the first three years of its existence, and flame wars were common, as they were on most other newsgroups.

The online battle is generally seen to have begun with the arrival of Dennis Erlich[?] to alt.religion.scientology in mid-1994. A former high-ranking official in the organization who had been personally affiliated with L. Ron Hubbard, Erlich's presence on the newsgroup caused a number of regular participants there to sit up and take notice.

On December 24, 1994, the first of a large number of anonymous messages was posted to alt.religion.scientology, containing the text of the "secret" writings of Scientology known as the OT Levels (OT stands for "Operating Thetan"). This action brought on the actions of lawyers representing Scientology, who contacted various newsgroup participants and posted warnings demanding that the unauthorized distribution of the OT writings cease. The OT documents were described as "copyrighted, trademarked, unpublished trade secrets," and the distribution of the materials was a violation of copyright law and trademark law.

Shortly after the initial legal announcements, representatives of Scientology followed through with a series of lawsuits against various participants on the newsgroup, including Dennis Erlich. Accompanied by Scientology lawyers, federal marshals made several raids on the homes of individuals who were accused of posting Scientology's copyrighted materials to the newsgroup. Raids took place in Virginia, Colorado, California, and even in The Netherlands] and Scandinavia. In addition to filing lawsuits against individuals, Scientology also sued The Washington Post for reprinting one paragraph of the OT writings in a newspaper article, as well as several Internet service providers, including Netcom[?] and XS4ALL.

In the wake of the Scientology actions, the Penet remailer, which had been the most popular anonymous remailer in the world until the Scientolgy "war" took place, shut down. Johan Helsingius[?], operator of the remailer, stated that the legal guards in his country (Finland) were too thin to protect him, and he was forced to close down the remailer as a result.

The war continues

The initial strikes against Scientology's critics settled down into a series of legal battles that raged through the courts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation provided legal assistance to several of the defendants, and daily reports of the latest happenings were posted to alt.religion.scientology. The newsgroup's popularity exploded, rocketing it to the ranks of the newsgroups with the heaviest message traffic and the highest number of readers. As the months and years wore on and the lawsuits continued without end, however, a number of participants in the newsgroup grew silent and moved on.

Although the legal precedents set by the Scientology court battles would initially have a profound effect on the way the Internet was seen by the legal system (the ruling of Religious Technology Center vs. Netcom[?] was used as a precedent for a number of Internet copyright cases), the Scientology court cases were eventually superseded as large corporations and federal governments began to write their own rules and set additional standards for the regulation of copyrighted materials online.

A few of the court cases were decided in favor of Scientology, while most of the cases were settled out of court. Noteworthy incidents in the later years of the online war included:

  • Scientology's lawsuit against ex-member Arnie Lerma[?], his provider Digital Gateway, and the Washington Post. Lerma posted the Fishman affidavit that contained 61 pages of the allegedly trade-secret and copyrighted story of Xenu.

  • Scientology's lawsuit against XS4ALL, journalist Karin Spaink, and fifteen other Internet companies in the Netherlands was taken up to the nation's Supreme Court. The case was decided against Scientology, and Karin Spaink's Web site (where she had placed summaries of the OT writings) was "officially" declared legal.

  • Activist Keith Henson[?] was sued for posting a portion of Scientology's writings to the Internet. Henson defended himself in court without a lawyer, while at the same time he carried out protests and pickets against Scientology. The court found that Henson had committed copyright infringement, though the damage award against Henson was immense: $150,000, an amount claimed by Scientology to be the largest damages ever awarded against an individual for copyright infringement. Henson's case became increasingly more complex, however, with charges of "terrorism" being added. In his Internet writings, Henson claims that he was forced to flee the United States and seek asylum in Canada due to ongoing threats against him.

  • Zenon Panoussis, a resident of Sweden, was also sued for posting Scientology's copyrighted materials to the Internet. He used a subsection of the Constitution of Sweden guaranteeing citizens the right to expose criminal activities as his defense, but the case was decided against him. The results of Panoussis' case sparked a legal firestorm in Sweden that debated the necessity of re-writing part of the Constitution.

  • Dennis Erlich settled his lawsuit with Scientology and withdrew from the online battle entirely.

  • Scientology also sued Grady Ward, a known free speech activist and cypherpunk, claiming that Ward was the person behind an anonymous figure known only as "SCAMIZDAT." This individual had posted a large number of copyrighted Scientology materials to the newsgroup. Ward denied the accusations, and the lawsuit was settled out of court. A sizable portion of the lawsuit involved the legalities of the use of encryption software. As part of the lawsuit, Scientology hired computer experts to try to decode the famous Pretty Good Privacy encryption -- but all attempts to "crack" the encryption failed.

  • Philanthropist Bob Minton funded a number of court cases affecting the online battle, and he also became involved in the legal battle over Scientology's role in the death of one of its members, Lisa McPherson. Minton founded a short-lived organization called the Lisa McPherson Trust to support his cause and make a considerable amount of information about Scientology legally available online.

  • Scientology is one of the first organizations to make use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In June of 1999, Scientology used the controverisal law to force AT&T Worldnet[?] to reveal the identity of a person who had been posting anonymously to alt.religion.scientology with the pseudonym of "Safe." The organization also used the same law to force the Google search engine to erase its entries on the popular anti-Scientology Web site Operation Clambake in March 2002, though the entry was reinstated after Google received a large number of complaints from Internet users.

  • In September 2002, lawyers for Scientology contacted the administrators of the Wayback Machine (archive.org) and asserted ownership of certain materials archived as historical contents of the Operation Clambake site. In response, the Wayback Machine administration removed the archive of the entire Clambake site, initially posting a false claim that the site's author had requested its removal. This claim has been removed but (as of October 2002) the archive remains removed.

While legal battles were being fought in the courts, an equally intense and aggressive campaign was waged online. The newsgroup alt.religion.scientology found itself at the center of an electronic maelstrom of information and disinformation, as the newsgroup itself was attacked both literally and figuratively. Tens of thousands of junk messages were spammed onto the newsgroup, rendering it nearly unreadable at times when the message "floods" were at their peaks. Hacking methods were used to wipe out messages from news servers carrying the newsgroup. Lawyers representing Scientology made public appeals to Internet service providers to remove the newsgroup completely from their news servers (though these requests were repeatedly rejected). Furthermore, anonymous participants in the newsgroup kept up a steady stream of flame wars and off-topic arguments. Participants on the newsgroup accused Scientology of orchestrating these electronic attacks, though the organization consistently denied any wrongdoing.

In a move designed to shield its members from the online battle, Scientology introduced a special software package for its members designed to completely block out the newsgroup, various anti-Scientology web sites, and all references to various critics of Scientology. This software package was derided by critics, who accused the organization of censorship and called the program "Scieno Sitter," after the censorware net-filter program Cyber Sitter.

See also: Scientology and the Legal System

Further Reading

The online war has seen a large number of persons participating fervently on both sides of the conflict. Neutral, unbiased commentaries are difficult to locate, and parties in both the pro- and anti-Scientology camp are known to use rhetoric and emotional appeals.



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