Scientologists end secrecy on Internet
The following article appeared in The Independent (UK) newspaper on Saturday, 3 March:
by Andrew Brown A Computer which conceals the identity of anyone sending a message on the Internet - offering secrecy to paedophiles and political refugees - has been raided by Finnish police after complaints from Scientologists. The computer, "anon.penet.fi", an "anonymous remailer", had only one function: to conceal the identity of anyone who sent a message through it under a codename. Normally all messages on the Internet come from identifiable addresses, and it is difficult to conceal the sender's identity. It also seemed safe for users since there was no obvious crime under Finnish law. The service was run as a hobby by a Finnish computer consultant, Johan Helsingius. Defenders of anonymous remailers claimed they made it easier to talk freely about sensitive subjects such as sexual abuse, and protected users from reprisals from repressive regimes. Opponents pointed out that the remailer was popular with the paedophile discussion group "alt.sex.intergen.", part of the world-wide bulletin board "Usenet". Disagreements between the pro- and anti-paedophilia factions tend to be violent. Last summer someone known as "email@example.com" wrote: "For your sake, you should stop attacking this group, or some day... one of the sick bastards in this group might decide to visit your home. They might sneak inside and tie you up. Then they might rape your children right in front of your face." However, it was not obscenity but alleged breaches of copyright which led to the anonymity of the remailer being broken. Anon.penet.fi became part of the battle waged across the Internet this winter by Scientologists against a former member of the religious cult, Dennis Erlich. Mr Erlich had posted large chunks of the gobbledygook used in the upper reaches of the cult by "operant Thetans." Scientologists claimed this material was copyright; Mr Erlich claimed his annotations made it fair comment. In December and January, Mr Erlich's postings started mysteriously to disappear. Someone had hacked the Usenet to remove them using a program called a "cancelbot". Hackers opposed to scientology worked out ways to cancel the cancelbot. Meanwhile, larger chunks of the disputed material started to appear, posted through anon.penet.fi. So did the violent personal attacks on Mr Erlich. On 2 February, the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles reported a burglary, claiming the material posted through the anonymous remailer must have come from a theft. This complaint was transmitted to the Helsinki police, who raided anon.penet.fi on 8 February. Mr Helsingius handed over a disk which identified the users behind the pseudonyms. The Finnish police decided no crime had been committed, but the relevant information had already been passed to the police in Los Angeles and to Scientologists in Finland. On the same day, the Church of Scientology sued Dennis Erlich, Tom Klemesrud, the owner of the bulletin board he used to make his postings, and Netcom, the company which connects Mr Klemesrud's bulletin board to the Internet. All, it is alleged, were implicated in the breach of copyright. On 13 February a posse of Scientologists, armed with a court order, raided Mr Erlich's house in Glendale, California, and removed from his hard disk everything they claimed was relevant to the case. They also removed his backup tapes. The case has been taken up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington lobby group for freedom of speech in cyberspace. The above is (c) The Independent, 1995.