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Law of the wires

The Observer - Life magazine supplement, 1st October 1995

Writer:   Jim McClellan

Earlier this month, the Amsterdam offices of xs4all, a Dutch Internet access
provider, were visited by a bailiff, accompanied by the police, a lawyer,
computer experts and a representative of the Church of Scientology. The
religious organisation set up by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard is
filing for the seizure of xs4all's computer equipment, which means, under
Dutch law, that a bailiff first comes round to record your assets. On that
visit, all that was taken were a few computer serial numbers. xs4all is
still up and running.

This was the latest stage in the battle between Scientologists and their
critics on the Net - a battle over the limits of free speech and the
enforcing of copyright on-line which has been going on around the world for
the past eight months.

The fallout from the Dutch incident may actually see the Scientologists
taking legal action in the UK. The Church was on the march in Holland
because an xs4all user (fonss) had set up a home page containing some of its
copyright material. Though xs4all didn't demand changes and insisted the
page was none of its business, fonss removed the document and instead added
a link to a British Web page critical of Scientology maintained by Martin
Poulter, a philosophy research student at Bristol University. At the time of
writing, Poulter hasn't yet received a knock on the door, but it is, he
suggests, a distinct possibility.

The dispute started with the church's decision to act against one of its
critics, Dennis Ehrlich. The former Scientology minister had been posting
messages to the Usenet discussion group alt.religion.scientology, which
contained excerpts from the church's sacred texts (space opera sagas about
intergalactic federations and evil alien rulers).

Lawyers for the organisation argued that the texts in question were
protected by copyright. Consequently, Ehrlich's home in Glendale,
California, was raided in February this year and various computer discs were
seized. He has claimed a defence of "fair use", arguing that he needed to
quote the texts as part of his critique.

In a way, this is just the latest hi-tech chapter in a long history of legal
battles between the church and its critics. However, the Scientologists also
took action against Ehrlich's Internet service provider, Netcom, arguing
that it was also liable for his copyright infringements. It's this which has
serious implications for Net culture.

In its defence, Netcom says that it should be seen as similar to telephone
companies, that it is a "common carrier" of messages, not a publisher, and
hence not responsible.

It is likely that the case will set some kind of precedent concerning the
legal responsibilities of Internet service providers, which might be one
reason the official involved, Judge Whyte, is taking his time. If the
Scientologists win it won't, as some alarmists claim, mean the death of the
Net. It will, however, mean a level of control and censorship previously
unknown on-line.

Meanwhile, a kind of on-line holy war has been raging as Netheads have
retaliated against what they see as an attack on their culture. The Net has
ben flooded with anti-Scientology material and alt.religion.scientology has
become one of the busiest newsgroups.

The Scientologists have responded with more raids. In July they closed down
an anonymous remailer in Finland (which lets Net users send E-mail
anonymously) because they claimed it was being used to circulate copyrighted
materials. They also released specially designed programs (nicknamed
cancelbunnies) to delete on-line messages with copyright infringements. For
their side of the story and their take on the Net, try the home page of the
Church of Scientology International's media relations director, Leisa

Even if they win their case against Ehrlich and Netcom, it won't stop
anti-Scientology activity on-line. The only thing you can say is that Judge
Whyte certainly won't have the last word on the case and, like a lot of
things on-line, the battle between the church and the Netheads will run and

Footnote: Details of the xs4all raid are at http://www.xs4all.nl/
Leisa Goodman's home page is at http://www.theta.com/goodman.index.htm
Martin Poulter's page is at http://mail.bris.ac.uk/%7Eplmlp/

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