Up: Martin Poulter > Scientology Criticism > UK Media Archive

Scientology takes on the 'net

Hype Webzine

[Originally from http://www.uea.ac.uk/concrete/hype/commentary/cosvsnet.htm]

Although it is the fashion to dismiss net antics as little more than amusing footnotes to reality, there is at least one group out there who is taking internet-based criticism very seriously indeed. This is the Church of Scientology, a religious cult founded in the 1950s by the American science-fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard. In the real world, they are involved in legal battles with their critics that have spilled out from the US to involve police raids on computer operators in Europe. Meanwhile, a global cat-and-mouse game is being played with disputed documents on the net.

It all started back in 1991, when a university student from Indiana, created the usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, as a forum to expose the cult. The newsgroup was not endorsed by the self-professed church, and most of the people posting messages were detractors. Along with criticism, ex-Scientologists used anonymous remailers (computers that remove the name and address information from email messages before sending them on) to post texts known as Operating Thetan levels (visit this site for an explanation of all the wierd jargon used by the cult followers), which the CoS maintains are "copyrighted trade secrets". Unsurprisingly, this didn't go down too well with members of the Church, and the shit really began to hit the fan in December last year when they started sending commands to cancel postings written by their critics. This was followed by a message from one of the CoS lawyers ordering all system administrators to remove the entire group, as the its very name infringed the Church's trademark, plus threats of legal action to administrators of various anonymous remailers. Complaints about this heavy-handed behaviour were voiced around the net.

So far, so what? A bit of net-based whingeing. Nothing too drastic. Until February this year, when the CoS managed to get a restraining order served on one Dennis Erlich from California. CoS lawyers and police raided his house and copied and deleted files from his computer. The cult also sued the computer bulletin board he was posting from, and its internet service provider. Later that month, they managed to persuade Interpol and Finnish police to force the operator of an anonymous remailer to reveal the name of one of the users of their service. August saw another raid in the US, with computer equipment being confiscated. Then on September 5th, an attempt was made to seize the computers from Dutch internet service provider, XS4ALL.

All the fuss is over a document known as the (link:../misc/fishman.htm)Fishman Affidavit. This is the testimony of Stephen Fishman, who was brought to trial in the US for crimes that he allegedly commited to fund his Scientology courses. As part of his defense, he submitted the Operational Thetan levels to the court to show how he been brainwashed by the cult. The irony is that the court record is in theory, publicly available from the clerk for a minor fee. The only problem with this is that a group of CoS members have been consistently signing out the document every day for over a year now, so preventing anybody else from reading it. However, copies have leaked out onto the net, and are being made available on computers around the world. Each time CoS bring legal action against a person who republishes this document, more copies spring up elsewhere.

The document itself is pure twaddle. Apart from detailing the steps to be taken against critics, (legal harassment of journalists, etc.), it appears to reveal Hubbard's beliefs about events that occurred on Earth 75 million years ago, involving an interst ellar tyrant named Xenu, H-bombs and volcanos. Until recently [April 1996] copy of the Fishman Affidavit was available (link:../misc/fishman.htm)here on Hype's pages. However, since receiving (link:../misc/kobrin.htm)legal threats from Helena Kobrin, a CoS lawyer, it has been temporarily removed. Have a look at copies located (link:http://www.iaehv.nl/users/paul/fishman/fishnet.html)elsewhere instead.

And so the battle goes on. On one side is the Church, with their PR machine (seen adverts for the book 'Dianetics'? That's them.) and celebrity adherants such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. They also have vast amounts of money and (link:../misc/kobrin.htm)overzealous legal staff.

The opposition live on the internet, and have the advantage of a flexible medium through which to provide (link:http://mail.bris.ac.uk:80/~plmlp/scum.html)their side of the story. At the very least, the conflict will see some legal precedents set concerning such matters as copyright, fair use and the responsibility of service providers for the information that is passed on by their subscribers. At the most, this could see the end of Scientology as it gets literally laughed out of court. By taking on users of the internet, the Co$ may not only have bitten off more than it can chew, but it might well choke on it as well.

TR - 12/11/95

Up: Martin Poulter > Scientology Criticism > UK Media Archive