Scientology and the Price of Internet Information

19 Nov 2001

Scientology and the Price of Internet Information

In a costly battle with Scientology, Internet users fight for the right of freedom of speech

by Sean Cho


In the wake of Time magazine's expose on scientology, "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power" (May 6, 1991), scientology critic Scott Goehring created alt.religion.scientology. Goehring created the Usenet group partly in jest and partly because "I felt Usenet needed a place to disseminate the truth about this half-assed religion." He signed the message with a forged address Miscaviage@flag.sea. Miscaviage, a misspelling of Miscavige, is a reference to the former chairman of the Religious Technology Center, a church-affiliated organization that owns scientology's copyrights and trademarks.

Not until the summer 1994 did the newsgroup lure netizens from across the globe. The attraction was a forwarded copy of an electronic memo from Elaine Siegel, a representative of the Office of Special Affairs (OSA) of the Church of Scientology. Siegel sent the memo to scientologists on the net, suggesting that they flood alt.religion.scientology and alt.clearing.technology with pro-scientology propaganda to counter negative criticism. "If you imagine 40 to 50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, well just run the SPs (suppressive persons) right off the system," said Siegel in her memo. The debate reached a new audience as the memo was re-circulated all over the globe. Many knew little about Scientology, but saw the memo as a threat to Internet freedom.

The Church of Scientology is not new to controversy. Since its creation by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, this cult in Christs clothing has consistently drawn media attention for its questionable theology. According to the scientology interpretation of the scriptures, a persons immortal soul or "thetan" is confounded by thetans left over from a nuclear holocaust that occured 75 million years ago. The way one deals with thetans is through a series of costly church rituals. By ridding oneself of engrams, painful visual experiences, one can become an Operating Thetan (OT). The OT levels go as high as VIII. Very few members, however, have reached this level.

One reason may be that doing so would cost over 300,000 dollars in so-called church donations.

The cancelbunny

In December, messages began to mysteriously disappear from the Usenet group. Although deleting messages is a common practice--most Usenet software allowing readers to cancel their own posts was not being used by the senders to delete messages. Someone was forging cancellation messages to make them appear as if they had come from the original sender.

Sometimes there is good reason to forge cancellation. Spamming, mass mailings inappropriately posted all over the net (most often for commercial purposes), is often targeted for cancellation. A collection of individuals called the Cancelmoose gathers spams and deletes them. Most of the time the Cancelmoose reports on canceled messages, providing the content of the message as well as the reason for cancellation. What was happening on alt.relgion.scientology was entirely different. The messages that were being deleted were sent to only one newsgroup and they were being canceled on the basis of content. Under U.S. Code Title 18, section 2701 concerning the "unlawful access" to stored communications, this was a felony offense.

In many cases, the cancellation message said that the posting was "CANCELLED BECAUSE OF COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT." In most instances, however, the canceled postings contained either little or no copyrighted material. One canceled message contained reprints of court documents from Spain which described "felonies of illicit association, threat, coercion, usurpation of functions...and inducement to suicide." Dubbed by the Internet community as the cancelbunny, a synthesis of the Cancelmoose and the Energizer bunny, the flagrant censor continued to delete many articles critical of scientology under the guise of copyright infringement. The church denied affiliation with the cancelbunny and later insisted system administrators had agreed to remove infringing material. The church has yet to provide proof of this "agreement."

Search and Seizure

The most used and well-known anonymous remailer is run by Johan Helsingius in Finland. He was informed by a scientology representative that private information from a closed church system had been revealed publicly through his remailer. A scientology representative demanded the identity of 144104. Helsingius initially refused to release this information. Later, under coercion from the Finnish police, Helsingius had to sacrifice the identity of 144108 so that the rest of his users (numbering around 200,000) could remain anonymous. Although Finland is a country that is known for its respect for independence, individuality, and privacy, its authorities passed on this information to the church within one hour.

Around the same time scientologists armed with a restraining order and an writ of seizure raided Dennis Erlich. Erlich had spent 15 years in the church and had completed 7 of 8 OT levels. He was also one of the most outspoken critics who posted many follow-up articles in response to ones posted anonymously. Often, in responding to these messages, Erlich quoted and commented on the scripture within. During the raid, officials personally copied and deleted information on Erlich's hard drive. They exceeded the bounds of the writ issued for copyright infringement, and confiscated some of Erlich's private files. Confidential information including his acquaintances, his taxes, and finances was taken without explanation.

The violation in question revolved around a nobody@replay.com that allegedly posted Advanced Technology manuscripts or OT scriptures. When the original posts were made in December, Erlich reposted these materials with brief comments affirming their authenticity. "I just sort of signed my name to each one with a cursory explanation for the wogs [a Scientology term for non-scientologists]."

In several cases the church has named the Internet service provider (ISP) in addition to the poster. Although large organizations like Time magazine and The Washington Post can bear the financial burden of drawn-out litigation, most Internet service providers cannot. ISPs are often small locally-operated outfits that could not survive the economic pressures or protracted litigation. The simple threat of litigation could be enough to control the flow of information.

The Church of Scientologys rampant lawsuits are stifling the dissemination and discussion of information on the Internet at the forefront of the information age. If this is a second inquisition, God seems to be carrying an electronic gavel.



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