Scientology and the Internet

chanology

There are a number of disputes relating to the Church of Scientology’s efforts to suppress material critical of Scientology on the Internet through the use of lawsuits and legal threats. In late 1994, the Church of Scientology began using various legal tactics to stop distribution of unpublished documents written by L. Ron Hubbard.

The Church of Scientology is often accused of barratry (litigation for the purpose of harassment or profit) through the filing of SLAPP suits (lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition). The official church response is that its litigious nature is solely to protect its copyrighted works and the unpublished status of certain documents.

Various critics of the Church of Scientology argue that the church is a scam and that these secretive writings are proof, or that the documents contain evidence that the Church of Scientology’s medical practices are illegal and fraudulent. Scientology has been convicted of fraud in the courts of several nations, although not those of the United States. Others have claimed that the Church of Scientology is abusing copyright law by launching lawsuits against outspoken critics of the organization.

The newsgroup (internet messageboard) ‘alt.religion.scientology’ was created in 1991 by Scott Goehring, partly as a joke, partly for the purpose of informing the public about Scientology. 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 (heated arguments) were common, as they were on most other newsgroups. The online battle is generally seen to have begun with the arrival of former Scientologist Dennis Erlich to ‘alt.religion.scientology’ in 1994. A former high-ranking official in the organization who had been personally affiliated with L. Ron Hubbard, Erlich’s presence on the newsgroup attracted a lot of attention.

On Christmas Eve 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’). Included among these postings was ‘OT III’ (Operating Thetan Level Three), which gave L. Ron Hubbard’s description of the ‘Xenu story.’ Although the Xenu story was published in the Robert Kaufman book ‘Inside Scientology: How I Joined Scientology and Became Superhuman’ in 1972, the ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ in 1977, and several times in the 1980s in the ‘Los Angeles Times’; this release of information resulted in action by lawyers representing Scientology, who contacted various newsgroup participants and posted warnings demanding that the unauthorized distribution of the OT writings cease.

The lawyers described the documents as ‘copyrighted, trademarked, unpublished trade secrets,’ and the distribution of the materials as a violation of copyright law and trademark law. The first postings of the OT documents were done through an anonymous remailer, and the identity of the person who made them available on the newsgroup was never discovered. However, Dennis Erlich posted replies to these messages on the newsgroup, and his replies contained the entire text of the original messages (including the disputed materials). Scientology’s lawyers therefore approached him, declaring that Erlich had re-published the copyrighted works in his newsgroup messages. Erlich’s reply to this was to deny their requests to remove his postings from the newsgroup.

The following month, Scientology lawyer Helena Kobrin attempted to shut down ‘alt.religion.scientology’ by sending a control message instructing Usenet servers to delete the group on the grounds that: ‘(1) It was started with a forged message; (2) not discussed on alt.config; (3) it has the name ‘scientology’ in its title which is a trademark and is misleading, as a.r.s. is mainly used for flamers to attack the Scientology religion; (4) it has been and continues to be heavily abused with copyright and trade secret violations and serves no purpose other than condoning these illegal practices.’ In practice, this message had little effect, since most Usenet servers are configured to disregard such messages when applied to groups that receive substantial traffic. However, the issuance of the message led to a great deal of public criticism of Scientology by free-speech advocates.

Next, representatives of Scientology followed through with a series of lawsuits against various participants on the newsgroup, including Dennis Erlich in ‘Religious Technology Center v. Netcom.’ The first raid took place in 1995.] 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, The Netherlands, and Sweden. 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, Tom Klemesrud, and XS4ALL. It also regularly demanded the deletion of material from the ‘Deja News’ archive.

Participants in ‘alt.religion.scientology’ began using quotes from ‘OT III’ in particular to publicize the online battle over the secret documents. The story of Xenu was subsequently quoted in popular media, including  ’60 Minutes.’ It became the most famous reference to the OT levels, to the point where many Internet users who were not intimately familiar with Scientology had heard the story of Xenu, and immediately associated the name with Scientology. The initial strikes against Scientology’s critics settled down into a series of legal battles that raged through the courts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit digital rights group) provided legal assistance to defendant Tom Klemesrud and his attorney Richard Horning helped find Dennis Erlich Pro Bono defense. Daily reports of the latest happenings were posted to ‘alt.religion.scientology.’

In the wake of the Scientology actions, the Penet remailer (a server that received messages with embedded instructions on where to send them next, and then forwarded them without revealing where they originally came from), which had been the most popular anonymous remailer in the world until the Scientology ‘war’ took place, was shut down. Johan Helsingius, operator of the remailer, stated that the legal protections afforded him in his country (Finland) were too thin to protect the anonymity of his users and he decided to close down the remailer as a result.

After failing to remove the newsgroup, Scientologists adopted a strategy of newsgroup spam and intimidation. Scientologists hired third parties to regularly flood the newsgroup with pro-scientology messages, vague anti-scientology messages, irrelevant comments, and accusations that other posters are secret Scientologists intent on tracking and punishing posters. This makes the newsgroup virtually unreadable via online readers such as ‘Google Groups,’ although more specialized newsreading software that can filter out all messages by specific ‘high noise’ posters make the newsgroup more usable.

While legal battles were being fought in the courts, an equally intense and aggressive campaign was waged online. The newsgroup found itself at the center of an electronic maelstrom of information and disinformation. 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. Over one million sporgery articles were injected into the newsgroup by Scientology management and staff; former Scientology staff member Tory Christman has spoken at length about her involvement in these attacks. Lawyers representing Scientology made public appeals to Internet service providers to remove the newsgroup completely from their news servers. 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 the early days of the World Wide Web, Scientology attempted a similar strategy to make finding websites critical of the organization more difficult. Scientology employed Web designers to write thousands of Web pages for their site, thus flooding early search engines. This problem was solved by the innovation of clustering responses from the same Web server, showing no more than the top two results from any one site.

Since 1995, Scientology has made a policy of using copyright infringement laws to prosecute various Scientology critics posting exposing information on the Web. The Church uses legal pressure combined with blackmail and character assassination to attempt to win many court cases in which it involves itself. On the other side of the battle, many Web-page developers have linked the words ‘Dianetics’ and ‘Scientology’ to ‘Operation Clambake.’ This resulted in the anti-Scientology site having the highest Google index on the term for a while, which in turn resulted in Scientology persuading Google to remove links to the site (until international outcry led to the links being restored). This might be considered an early example of a Google bomb (a method of gaming Google’s search engine), and has led to questions about the power and obligations of Internet search providers.

In the 1990s Scientology was distributing a special software package for its members to protect them from ‘unapproved’ material about the church. The software is designed to completely block out the ‘alt.religion.scientology,’ various anti-Scientology websites, 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 content-control software net-filter program ‘Cyber Sitter.’ (The program was abandoned by Scientologists in 1998.)

In 2006, Scientology lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters to Max Goldberg, founder of the novelty website ‘YTMND,’ asking him to take down all sites that either talked about or mocked Scientology, which had recently become a fad on the site following a popular ‘South Park’ episode. Goldberg responded by saying that the ‘claims are completely groundless and I’m not removing anything,’ adding to the members of the site, ‘it should only be a matter of time before we’re sued out of existence.’ In response, YTMNDers created yet more sites about Scientology, and these were highlighted on the main page. They also campaigned to Google bomb ‘The Unfunny Truth About Scientology’ site. No legal action was taken against YTMND or Goldberg.

In 2007, an ‘Associated Press’ article on the ‘Wikipedia Scanner’ reported that computers owned by the Church of Scientology were removing criticism in the Scientology entry on Wikipedia. A ‘Fox News’ article also reported that Church of Scientology computers had been used to delete references of the relationship between Scientology and the Cult Awareness Network (an anti-cult group) on Wikipedia. In 2009, the ‘Wikipedia Arbitration Committee’ decided to restrict access to its site from Church of Scientology IP addresses, to prevent self-serving edits by Scientologists. A ‘host of anti-Scientologist editors’ were topic-banned as well. The committee concluded that both sides had ‘gamed policy’ and resorted to ‘battlefield tactics,’ with articles on living persons being the ‘worst casualties.’

In early 2008, a protest against the Church of Scientology was organized by Anonymous (a loosely associated network of hacktivists), which originally consisted of users of the English speaking imageboard ‘4chan’ and forums such as ‘Somethingawful.com,’ and several Internet Relay Chat channels, among other Internet-based communities claiming affiliation with Anonymous. In January of that year, a video produced by the Church of Scientology featuring an interview with Tom Cruise was leaked to the Internet and uploaded to YouTube. The Church of Scientology issued a copyright violation claim against YouTube requesting the removal of the video. In response to this, Anonymous formulated ‘Project Chanology.’ Calling the action by the Church of Scientology a form of Internet censorship, members of Project Chanology organized a series of denial-of-service attacks against Scientology websites, prank calls, and black faxes to Scientology centers.

Anonymous announced its goals and intentions via a video posted to YouTube entitled ‘Message to Scientology,’ and a press release declaring a ‘War on Scientology’ against both the Church of Scientology and the Religious Technology Center. In the press release, the group states that the attacks against the Church of Scientology will continue in order to protect the right to freedom of speech, and end what they believe to be the financial exploitation of church members.

The following month, 150 people gathered outside of a Church of Scientology center in Orlando, Florida to protest the organization’s practices. Small protests were also held in Santa Barbara, California, and Manchester, England. A few days later, about 7,000 people protested in more than 93 cities worldwide. Many protesters wore Guy Fawkes masks inspired by the character ‘V’ from ‘V for Vendetta,’ or otherwise disguised their identities, in part to protect themselves from reprisals from the Church of Scientology. Anonymous held a second wave of protests in March in cities all over the world, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, Berlin, and Dublin. Anonymous held its third protest against Scientology in April, named ‘Operation Reconnect,’ intended to increase awareness of the Church of Scientology’s disconnection policy (the severance of all ties between a Scientologist and anyone opposed to Scientology).

In March 2008, Wikileaks published a 612-page Scientology manual on the eight different Operating Thetan levels, considered secret by the Church of Scientology. Three weeks later, Wikileaks received a warning from the Church of Scientology that the manual was copyrighted and that its publication infringed intellectual-property rights. Wikileaks refused to remove the material, and its operator released a statement saying that Scientology was a ‘cult’ that “aids and abets a general climate of Western media self-censorship.’ A Church of Scientology International spokeswoman, writing to ‘FOXNews.com,’ said: ‘I can only assume that religious bigotry and prejudice is driving their activity, as there is no altruistic value in posting our copyrighted scriptures, despite Wikileaks’ statements to the contrary. Posting entire books and hundreds of pages of published works is not ‘Sunshine Policy’ but wholesale copyright infringement.’ Julian Assange replied: ‘We thought it was a small issue, and our normal fare is government corruption and military secrets, so it seemed that this nutty religious organization was pretty inconsequential in terms of what we normally do. But after receiving these legal threats from them … it was time for us to make a stand.’

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