net.wars: Scientology: Xenu strikes again

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 January 2008

I see that the war between Scientology and the Net, first spotted in about 1994, has erupted again. Same issues, slightly different people, similar behaviour.

Wendy M Grossman

Then (1993-1996): a bunch of Scientology critics collided with a bunch of Scientology adherents in the Usenet newsgroup a.r.s - alt.religion.scientology. The critics, besides posting criticism, began posting chunks of the documents that were normally only revealed to Scientologists after they'd been through many (expensive) levels of Scientology training. For an explanation of what the documents are, see here.

The Church of Scientology reacted as documented in the first-referenced article back there (even now, that's often the one thing I've written that people remember).

  • The newsgroup got flooded with hundreds of messages containing copied and pasted chunks of pro-Scientology material.
  • There was a "Cancelbunny" that began cancelling the critics' messages.
  • Real people got their real homes raided and their real hard drives confiscated.
  • The anonymous mail server in Finland, used for posting some of the secret documents, was raided and, when its owner, Julf Helsingius, realised he couldn't really promise anonymity in the face of the law, shut down.
  • Keith Henson, an engineer and fringe science adventurer (cryonics, space colonization, rocket building), was sued by the CoS for copyright infringement after he openly posted some of the secret documents. He lost in court, declared bankruptcy, picketed Scientology offices, was sentenced to jail, fled to Canada, ordered to present himself for extradition, fled back to the US, and finally spent six months in jail.
  • 1998: Usenet stopped being the most important forum for Net discussions probably sometime around 1998. At which point, flooding the Web seems to have become the strategy: give every Scientologist E-Z software for building their own site, and watch the numbers grow. "Web spam", a.r.s. called it; that was a time when sheer numbers might still influence what came top of search engine listings.

    Early 2000s: The fight moved to where the most important gatekeepers were: search engines. The first note of the battle over spam links, Digital Millennium Copyright Act removal notices, and Google's behaviour dates to 1998. A 2002 sampling shows pretty much the same pattern as the Usenet era, without the real-life drama, as does this 2001 article.

    Now: this week, I see that an Internet group calling itself "Anonymous" have been launching DDoS attacks on Scientology Web sites, taking them intermittently offline. It's good to see that longstanding a.r.s. Scientology critics like Jeff Jacobsen think this tactic is wrong. Because it is, and not just because DDoS attacks are illegal.

    Scientology's online critics have always skated a fine line between good and bad forms of protest. There was, for example, a possibly legitimate argument for posting the secret documents, even if they were copyright. Most copyright laws make exceptions for quotations for criticism and parody; critics could also reasonably argue that given the amount Scientologists pay for their access to these documents they ought to have the right to get some idea of what kind of teachings they were actually going to be paying for. After all, most religions – in which category Scientology places itself – publish their beliefs openly. Where would we be in Marriott hotels at night without our free copies of the Bible and the Book of Mormon? It's only businesses – in which category Scientology does not place itself willingly – that claim the inner workings of the products they sell are trade secrets.

    There was, therefore, an defensible case that the critics who reacted to copyright threats by publishing the documents as widely and as often as possible were acting in the public interest. You may disagree with it, but it is a legitimate argument to say that people deserve to see what they're buying. A supposed church that counters that argument by claiming that publication will cause it financial hardship could find itself on shaky moral, if not legal, ground.

    There is no such case to be made for DDoS attacks.

    If a site's owner is doing something illegal, report them to the police, counter their bad speech with more speech, or counter their bad technology by documenting it and creating better technology. The Web and search engine wars were carried out in just that way: documenting the influx of thousands of near-identical pro-Scientology Web sites and presenting the evidence to both the search engines themselves and the Web at large was exactly the right way to convince people that something questionable was going on. And the results of the changes search engines made have been long-lasting (in Internet terms). Type "Scientology" into Google today, and you get a set of hits that seem fairly representative of all points of view: top hit CoS's own site, next two hits Wikipedia's entries, third hit one of the best-known critics, Operation Clambake.

    Operation Clambake's owner, Andreas Heldal-Lund, has also, I'm glad to see, come out against the DDoS operation. As he says, it's hypocritical to defend your own activities on the grounds of freedom of speech and then deny it to other people.

    Freedom of speech means freedom for speech you disagree with.

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    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).