By Wendy M. Grossman
Welcome to mortal combat between two alien cultures - a flame war with real bullets.
Saturday, August 12, 1995. The word goes out over the Net: a raid is in progress at the Arlington, Virginia, home of Arnaldo Lerma, Usenet poster and former Scientologist. The raiding party is said to consist of ten people: two federal marshals; two computer technicians, one of whom is former FBI agent and computer-security expert James Settle; and several attorneys from the Church of Scientology. One attorney is Helena Kobrin, known to many on the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology through her postings demanding the deletion of files which she claims contain copyrighted material. Another is Earle Cooley, a church lawyer who also chairs the board of Boston University. They are taking Lerma's computer, backups, disks, modem, and scanner. Although persistent and passionate about his anti-Scientology crusade, Lerma is distraught over the intrusion. Like many of us, Lerma keeps all his files, both business and personal, on his home computer.
The raiding party says he'll have his equipment back by Monday. Weeks later, he's still waiting.
Lerma is not the first. In February, similar raids were staged on Dennis Erlich in Glendale, California, and on anon.penet.fi, an anonymous remailer run by Johan Helsingius in Finland.
Then more - on Tuesday, August 22, 1995. This time it's two raids. The target is FactNet, an anticult electronic library and archive based in Golden, Colorado. One raid is on FactNet chair - and former Scientologist - Lawrence Wollersheim, the unpaid winner of a multimillion-dollar suit against the church. The other is on FactNet director Bob Penny. FactNet has been expecting a raid since early spring, and it long ago told Internet users to download as much of its archives as possible. There are now FactNet anti-Scientology kits on websites all over the world. With netters everywhere able to cut and paste them, transmit and download them, they become more and more difficult to track down. It would take a lot of international cooperation and a lot of police power to get them all.
On the Usenet newsgroup at the heart of all this, alt.religion.scientology, posters who've been critical of the religion are still worried. The church has filed suit against The Washington Post for quoting material the church considers proprietary; police have paid a visit to XS4ALL, a Dutch Internet service provider, to file for seizure of equipment (at issue is the service's anonymous remailer and the home page of a user who has posted Scientology materials); and rumor has it there'll be a raid on another netter any day now. The popular bet for the next round is critic Grady Ward in Arcata, California, who has told the group his 74-year-old mother was visited by a Scientology investigator. The masses on alt.religion.scientology have started a pool to guess how many people will hit Ward. Other users have reported mysterious incidents: investigators visiting their neighbors, strangers attempting to get into their telephone records, e-mail sent to their sysadmins asking that their accounts be closed down. How did we get to this, in a free country?
It turns out that a belief in free speech and an interest in Scientology may involve you in the bitterest battle fought across the Internet to date. The story of Scientology versus the Net is not a tale of friendly nethead-to-nethead hostilities like 1993's kittens-in-the-microwave flame war between alt.tasteless and rec.pets.cats. This is mortal combat between two alien cultures - two worlds whose common language masks the gulf between them. A flame war with real guns. A fight that has burst the banks of the Net and into the real world of police, lawyers, and armed search and seizure. Ultimately, however, the drama doesn't matter: the real issues here are the boundaries of free speech and the future of copyright and intellectual property in the face of a technology that can scatter copies across the world in seconds. The Church of Scientology will not be the last organization, controversial or otherwise, that seeks to protect its interests against the Net. Technology doesn't care about the motives of its users.
In this story, everyone's motives sound the same: all the participants believe they are benefiting humanity. Scientologists genuinely believe their secrets can save the world, but that they must be doled out only to those who have proven ready to receive them. Followers hold fiercely to the notion that their revered, secret texts must never be disseminated, save to the rigorously initiated, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to study them. Critics insist the religion is a scam that seeks to take over the minds of its adherents and bilk them of huge sums of money by selling utter nonsense; they feel that exposing these truths - and the secret texts - to the eyes of the Usenet-reading public is protecting that public from exploitation.
Whatever the motives, when computers are seized because they contain allegedly purloined intellectual property, messages are intercepted as they traverse the network, or the security of anonymous remailers is pierced by police, the days of the Internet as a cozy, private, intellectual cocktail party are over. Welcome to real politics.
Alt.religion.scientology was never a quiet newsgroup. It was created on July 17, 1991, by Scott Goehring, who says he started the newsgroup half as a joke and half "because I felt Usenet needed a place to disseminate the truth about this half-assed religion." He forged the signature email@example.com onto the message used to create the group - a misspelling for church leader David Miscavige (flag and sea refer to Scientology branches, known as orgs).
From the start, the group attracted both skeptics and believers. While never coming close to agreement, the rivals managed to co-exist in the sort of tense balance the Net seems to specialize in. They even hammered out a more or less stable agreement to have multiple FAQs - rather than the standard single list of frequently asked questions - to introduce newcomers to both sides. While each side has criticized the other's writings, there have been no serious attempts to interfere with the dual FAQs. There has even been a certain tolerance for a particularly vehement Dutch poster who has declared most of the newsgroup's participants to be Suppressive Persons (SPs), the Scientology equivalent of excommunicates. He calls himself Ron's Inspector and believes he's telepathically in touch with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.
Hubbard was a pulp-fiction writer by trade. His published books, monographs, internal-policy documents, and taped lectures form what the church calls its sacred scriptures. The more advanced materials are closely guarded: Hubbard claimed that exposure to the secrets of an Operating Thetan, as the church refers to its acolytes, could harm, even kill, the partially initiated. The church's Net-related legal actions have all focussed on protecting the scriptures from disclosure.
These recent raids and suits have come after a long period of increasing verbal violence. One of the first steps toward open warfare was the emergence, in about 1990, of a group that wanted to separate the church and its scriptures. Calling itself the Free Zone, this group consists of people who have left the church but still want to practice its teachings - use the tech, as Free Zoners say. Ex Scientologist Homer Smith is one of these (ex meaning "expanded," not "former" Scientologist, says Smith). Wanting to encourage serious discussion of the tech away from the noisy brawl next door in alt.religion.scientology, Smith set up a second newsgroup, alt.clearing.technology, for this purpose. Even then, a church critic nearly got there first. Chris Schafmeister, a graduate student in biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, perpetrated a Usenet prank: in some older Internet guides, you'll read that alt.clearing.technology is for discussing acne cures.
Schafmeister was one of the first strident critics to join the discussion of Scientology on the Net, inspired by fliers on the walls of the UC San Francisco medical school. He was, he says, "really, really upset" at the way these posters targeted the sick, the sad, and the bereaved to get them into US$60 Scientology courses. Accordingly, he took to spending his study breaks arguing against the organization on Usenet. Schafmeister was the first to find in 1994 that the church had more than a passing interest in the discussions taking place in alt.religion.scientology.
It was a Scientologist he'd befriended on the Net, he says, who gave him a copy of a letter from a church staffer named Elaine Siegel. Appalled by its content, he promptly posted it on alt.religion.scientology. Siegel identified herself as writing from the Office of Special Affairs International, which former insiders say is the church's security branch. Addressed to Scientologists on the Net, the letter suggested flooding the Net with positive messages about Scientology as a counter to criticism posted. It said, in part, "If you imagine 40 to 50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we'll just run the SPs right off the system. It will be quite simple." She ended with, "I would like to hear from you on your ideas to make the Internet a safe space for Scientology to expand into."
Church lawyer Helena Kobrin, asked later about the letter by e-mail, said, "Ms. Siegel's letter was not an official church policy." Things might be different now if the church had said so at the time. Through the summer of 1994, the letter was copied, and its widespread circulation heated the debate to yet another degree, bringing a new constituency into the newsgroup: people who wanted to defend the Net against what they saw as a threat to their freedom. Many of them knew nothing about Scientology except for that letter, and they were incensed. Other arrivals knew a lot about Scientology, and were incensed for different reasons. Chief among them was Dennis Erlich, who calls himself a minister and who provides "information and support to people who have been subjected to high-demand groups." He was a Scientologist for 15 years.
Erlich left the church in 1982 after what he describes as a failed attempt to reform it from within. "That made me persona non grata, and they couldn't work with me because I wouldn't follow orders anymore." He was declared an SP and has since devoted himself to debunking the church at every opportunity. Several of the newsgroup's old-timers say the tone changed when Erlich showed up in '94. He agrees - and he's proud of it. "People were discussing this stuff like it was some sort of tea party," he says disdainfully. His own views against the church are so vehement it's hard to imagine he could reach any sort of amicable agreement with Scientologists - or they with him. His critical posts, with quotations from the church literature, turned alt.religion.scientology from debating club to battlefield.
Shortly before Christmas 1994, messages started to mysteriously vanish from alt.religion.scientology. The contents of the missing messages are not known today. Many people believed they knew who was responsible, but gathering evidence and understanding what was happening were different tasks altogether.
Most Usenet newsreader software has built-in cancellation facilities. These are simple enough: the poster sends out a cancel-command message, often containing a brief explanation for the cancellation, which propagates around Usenet from server to server. The cancel command instructs the system to ignore the user's previously sent post, identified by a unique code assigned to every Usenet post when written. While the feature allows users to cancel their own posts, canceling somebody else's message is a little more complicated: the would-be censor has to forge the message to make it look as though it came from the original poster. It's not that hard to do if you know how.
There are legitimate - or at least Net-approved - reasons for forging cancellations. A loose collection of individuals known as the Cancelmoose, for example, removes spams, those mass mailings inappropriately posted all over the Net, usually for commercial purposes. When spurred by complaints in alt.current-events.net-abuse, the Cancelmoose typically culls messages posted to more than 25 newsgroups of widely varying content. Those who compose the Cancelmoose take open responsibility for their actions - in fact, they advertise them as a public service. The cancellations on alt.religion.scientology, however, were different. The messages that disappeared were sent to a single newsgroup, and no one ever claimed responsibility. So, this being the Net, a program was developed to get a look at what was being canceled. The program was called Lazarus.
Lazarus was another of Chris Schafmeister's ideas. It takes advantage of the fact that the header of every Usenet post - with the date, subject, sender, and a mess of other information packed in at the top of each file - is recorded in a general header log on a Usenet server and that every cancel command lands in a newsgroup called Control. Schafmeister's notion was that a program could scan the thousands of cancel commands posted in Control each day and compare them to the megalog of headers, specifically those that are routed to alt.religion.scientology. If Lazarus came up with a match, it would mean that a message headed for alt.religion.scientology had been canceled. Lazarus would automatically put up a note saying the message had been canceled, which would then propagate to all the Usenet servers, thereby alerting alt.religion.scientology readers everywhere. It would be up to the original poster to reinstate the message if he or she wanted to. Homer Smith took the idea and implemented it as a Perl script that is available to anyone on the Net, although it takes some skill to use.
"At least we can see when messages have been canceled," says Schafmeister. But Lazarus is limited: it cannot identify the CancelBunny, as the unidentified flying cancelers were disparagingly called. When Lazarus began reporting that messages had been "CANCELLED BECAUSE OF COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT," most on the newsgroup felt their instincts had been right - that the CancelBunny was one or more church representatives.
When asked in April about the cancellations, Helena Kobrin replied in an e-mail message: "In an effort to protect its rights, the Church has contacted several computer bulletin board operators in recent months who, when apprised of the illegal and offensive nature of the postings, agreed to remove the infringing materials from the Net." However, there has been no proof to support Kobrin's claim that sysadmins have cooperated with the church by deleting postings from their boards.
"Just about everybody got hit," wrote William Barwell, who signs himself Pope Charles. "I had two posts canceled." It was Barwell who discovered a bit of law, United States Code Title 18, section 2701 concerning "unlawful access to stored communications." The law includes provisions prohibiting unauthorized access to and malicious destruction of an electronic message; it also prevents unauthorized access to or alteration of electronic communications. Barwell felt all three of these applied to the forged cancellations. At the beginning of March, Barwell wrote a letter to the FBI asking the agency to enforce the code, and he sent copies to Netcom, where most of the cancel commands were originating, as well as his own service provider, NeoSoft. Later, Netcom closed the accounts of those canceling from its system, on the grounds that, having forged the cancellations, they were violating Netcom's terms of service. When a new spate of cancellations started coming from DeltaNet, a Southern California Internet service provider, accounts there were rapidly shut down as well. Recently, the forgeries have become more adept. The many postings this spring that appeared to come from London's Demon Internet service were eventually traced to a site in Dublin.
When the cancellations continued through July and August, a team calling itself the Rabbit Hunters, or, more formally, the Ad-Hoc Committee Against Internet Censorship, which includes representatives from the US, Canada, and Germany, began some fancy technical investigating. By comparing logs and monitoring news servers, the group believes it has finally traced the CancelBunny to the account of a Scientologist who posted prolifically early this spring. Asked to comment on their claims, Kobrin did not reply.
You can't say that here
At the same time, the church was pursuing other options. On January 3, 1995, about a week after the cancellations started, Johan Helsingius, the operator of the world's best known anonymous remailer, anon.penet.fi, posted to alt.religion.scientology a copy of a letter he had received from Helena Kobrin on behalf of Thomas Small, counsel for the Religious Technology Center and Bridge Publications Inc. (copyright holder and publisher, respectively, of Hubbard's work). Kobrin wanted him to block access from his remailer to alt.religion.scientology and alt.clearing.technology on the grounds that the remailer was being used as a conduit for copyrighted materials. Four other anonymous remailers received the same letter. On January 9, Helsingius replied that monitoring postings is impossible, and that he didn't believe blocking newsgroups was appropriate.
On January 11, Helena Kobrin posted a message in alt.config, the newsgroup in which users propose the creation of new groups in the alt. hierarchy, and the deletion of old ones. "We request that you remove the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup from your site," she wrote, adding a list of reasons for her demand: (1) the group was started with a forged message; (2) it was not introduced through the usual channels; (3) its use of the name "Scientology" violates a trademark; and (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."
The responses of the systems administrators were unanimous: forget it.
Enter the police
Meanwhile, back at the newsgroup, the name calling was growing vicious. Bashers posted affidavits from former Scientologists alleging corruption; Scientologists countered with affidavits alleging that the authors were known criminals. One such response was signed by Erlich's wife, Rosa, and alleged he had abused their daughter. Erlich, not deterred, denied the allegations and went on posting quotations from church materials and his critiques of them.
Erlich's Usenet feed comes from a small BBS in the LA area called support.com, which in turn gets its Usenet feed from Netcom, one of the largest Internet providers in the US. The sysop of support.com, Tom Klemesrud, says that in early January, Helena Kobrin requested he delete Erlich's Internet account, which he refused to do because the church could not provide him with specific proof of copyright infringement. What follows sounds like a rerun of The Outer Limits. In mid-January, Klemesrud reported a truly bizarre incident: he claimed his apartment was smeared with blood by a woman he'd met in a bar. In Klemesrud's version, this attack was meant to frighten him into closing Erlich's account.
Klemesrud's version of events didn't go unchallenged for long, however. On January 23, a poster signing himself -AB- from the address firstname.lastname@example.org, an account on Johan Helsingius' anonymous remailer, put up an opposing account, allegedly an interview with the woman in question, that claimed that Klemesrud was the attacker rather than the victim. No one heard the ominous chords at the time, but in hindsight, netters believe this was the posting that precipitated the raid on anon.penet.fi. Nine days later, on February 2, Helsingius was contacted by an American Scientology representative, who said that information from a closed, private church system had been made public through anon.penet.fi, and that the church had reported a burglary to the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI. The representative wanted the identity of an144108 @anon .penet.fi, who had posted that material. Helsingius refused, and was then told a request was on its way to the Finnish police. The police arrived on February 8, with a warrant. Helsingius managed to give up only the single ID that the church wanted instead of his entire database of 200,000. He says that within an hour, he was told the information had been passed on to the church.
It's unclear why the Church of Scientology was so anxious to track down this poster, who seems to have been defending the church against Klemesrud's allegations. From the church's point of view, however, the posing seems to have constituted a grave security leak. In an e-mail message, Helena Kobrin said of the anon.penet.fi raid: "The material that was stolen happened to relate to an investigation being conducted by the Church's lawyers into false allegations about the Church that had been posted on the Internet by Mr. Erlich and Mr. Klemesrud. These allegations centered on an incident involving a woman whom Mr. Klemesrud had met in a bar, which the investigation proved were completely unfounded." Asked if further action was being taken against the anon-poster whose identification was handed over, Kobrin said, "The matter is under investigation. I cannot comment." The church, when asked who was undertaking the investigation, did not reply.
Drop that disk
On the day the Finnish police visited Helsingius, the Religious Technology Center and Bridge Publications filed a complaint in San Jose, California, against Dennis Erlich and his Internet service providers, Tom Klemesrud and Netcom. The complaint states that Erlich had been posting church materials in violation of copyright and, in the case of the upper-level texts the church calls Advanced Technology, posting materials that were unpublished and confidential. The church calls those "trade secrets," and says that the issue is one of theft, not of free speech.
On February 10, US District Court Judge Ronald Whyte in San Jose issued a temporary restraining order against all three - Erlich, Klemesrud, and Netcom - commanding them to stop. Erlich was outraged, arguing that all his postings are merely fair use. "The most effective way I can discredit the cult is to use its own documents to show what they're about," he argues.
On February 13, Erlich's residence was raided. Erlich claims his constitutional rights were violated by the raid, in which, he says, floppies, books, and papers were seized, files deleted from his hard drive, and his house comprehensively searched and photographed. Afterward, two of his computers would not boot properly, and he was left with no backups from which to restore his system; he was not given an inventory of the materials taken.
Thanks to the lobby efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Erlich is being defended by the high-profile California law firm of Morrison & Foerster on a pro bono basis. The temporary restraining order against Klemesrud and Netcom was quickly dissolved. As both Klemesrud and Netcom explained, they cannot police the flow of information across their computers. Even if Erlich has committed a crime, they say, to hold them responsible would be like charging the post office for complicity in mail fraud. It would also bring to an end the Net as we know it. In March, the church filed a motion to hold Erlich in contempt of court for reposting to alt.religion.scientology one of the articles the church objected to in the first place - and it promises to pursue its action against Erlich vigorously, although by mid-August, the parties were still waiting for a ruling from Judge Whyte.
In a prepared statement about the Erlich case, Leisa Goodman, media relations director for the Church of Scientology International, wrote, "Numerous attempts had been made by the Church's lawyers to persuade Erlich to halt his unauthorized, wholesale postings of the Church's religious scriptures, which went way beyond the concept of 'fair use' and constituted violation of copyright law." Later in the same statement, she wrote, "Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to steal. Erlich's attempts to misdirect and misinform the media are intended solely to divert attention from his own unlawful actions. He has spread polemic and sometimes obscene messages about the Church over the Internet - also a smoke screen to divert attention away from his illegal activities."
Like Erlich, Arnaldo Lerma, whose three-hour raid in Virginia this August left him profoundly shaken, has been described by the church as a copyright terrorist. As of September 1, Lerma is still awaiting the return of his equipment. His service provider, Digital Gateway Systems, is also included in the suit. In Lerma's case, the bone of contention is a set of August 2, 1995, postings which contained the complete set of court documents from the LA case, Church of Scientology International v. Fishman and Geertz. The gist of the documents - available from the LA federal courthouse - are portions of the Operating Thetan materials read into the record. The church maintains the materials are still protected by copyright, even if they're in the public record; skeptics say there are no legal precedents to support this. Either way, by now there are thousands of copies of these documents around the world.
On September 12, Colorado Judge John Kane ordered the return of materials seized from FactNet directors Wollersheim and Penny while enjoining them from making further copies of Scientology materials. On September 15, Virginia Judge Leonie Brinkema followed suit. The church is appealing both decisions.
Meanwhile, there is one poster, still untouched, the church would surely love to close down: Scamizdat. Scamizdat's postings - 11 to date - contain large chunks of the Scientology secret materials, up to 21 documents at a time. Scamizdat posts anonymously through a chain of remailers; when, in April, Helena Kobrin asked Homer Smith to identify the source of a Scamizdat posting sent through his remailer, Smith refused.
An alert sent around the Net that Scamizdat's comments were wanted for this article elicited this message: "I am just a netizen fighting a litigious cult in the age of information. While the Net has its own perpetual struggles among its orthodoxy and revisionists, it strobes into immobility lawyers and money that darken the battles in the ordinary world. Once a representative portion of the Scientologist cartoon mythology is posted into undeniable digital immortality I will snow crash back into oblivion. SCAMIZDAT."
The talk goes on
Controversy creates popularity. By late March, alt.religion.scientology was averaging 2,500 postings a week. By August, it had crept up to 2,700, with something to offend everyone. Some of the fallout landed in alt.journalism, news.admin.misc, comp .org.eff.talk, alt.current-events.net-abuse, and even, with the Scamizdat postings, hackers newsgroup alt.2600 - which wasn't too thrilled at the newcomers, even though the group had to admit there's something like hacking involved in anonymously posting secret scriptures.
By almost any measure - messages, volume, readership - the newsgroup is now one of the 40 most popular on the Internet. Although messages still continue to disappear, some might think that attempts to censor the newsgroup as a whole have backfired - spectacularly.
Not Stu Sjouwerman, a Scientologist and part owner of a computer company who runs a closed mailing list for Scientologists. Sjouwerman dismisses the newsgroup as "less than 0.002 percent of the whole Net. Couple of dogs barking, that's all."
But former Scientologist Robert Vaughn Young takes a darker view. He doesn't post to the newsgroup, but seems to be constantly aware of what's going on. Once a national spokesman for the church, he says frankly, "I am thankful I'm not having to face the Net. It's going to be to Scientology what Vietnam was to the US." In the end, he says, "Their only choice is to withdraw. They cannot win." The result, he thinks, will be "to create the first place in the world where Scientology can be freely discussed." If true, given that freedom of speech and freedom of religion have traditionally gone hand in hand, that would be a victory for everybody.
FactNet - Information about Scientology
EFF's Church of Scientology archive
The Church of Scientology v. the Net
The Scamizdat Memorial
The Church of Scientology
Scientology Texts and Information on the Web:
Wendy M. Grossman (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in London and is founder and former editor of the UK magazine The Skeptic. may involve you in the bitterest battle yet fought across the Internet.
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