E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.04 - August 1995

War of the Words

By Wendy Grossman

Homer Wilson Smith is worried. It's April 9, 1995 and someone using the name Scamizdat is posting long - 50 to 60 pages - excerpts of material marked "twenty-one documents from Scientology secret practices". Some of it has come through the anonymous re-mailer he operates and he's started getting phone calls asking him where the stuff came from. The answer is another re-mailer. (Scamizdat is being very careful to chain through multiple systems to protect his or her identity.) Smith won't tell his caller which re-mailer without a court order. He has posted messages saying all this onto the Net and is begging everyone to behave responsibly. His caller is Helena K Kobrin. She is an attorney acting for the Church of Scientology International (CoS). The last time she made calls like this, they were followed soon afterwards by policemen with search warrants.

Smith has good reason to be worried. Like it or not, his desire to pursue his interest in Scientology has caught him up in one of the most bitter battles ever fought across the Internet.

The story of Scientology versus the Net is not a tale of friendly Nethead-to-Nethead hostilities like 1994's kittens-in-the-microwave flame war between alt.tasteless and rec.pets.cats. This is an out-and-out war between two alien cultures - two worlds whose common language masks the gulf between them. And this fight has burst the banks of the Net into the real world of policemen and lawyers, search and seizure. Ultimately however, despite all the drama, what matters in this story is the future of free speech on the Net.

While the Internet has empowered millions to speak more freely - and more broadly - than before, this is not in practice an unconditional freedom. Messages can be intercepted as they traverse the network. Computers can be seized when they contain allegedly purloined intellectual property. And the security of anonymous re-mailers, which allows accusations to be made from behind a technological veil of secrecy, can be pierced by Interpol. Everybody now knows how the Internet can be used by friendly nerds to swap hints about obscure Unix commands or to argue about sex and politics. But Scientology's story is different. It shows that technology - not to mention lawyers - can be used to try to control speech as well as to free it. It shows what battles will have to be fought and what compromises thrashed out, as the Internet evolves from being a sort of intellectual tea party, where nice intellectuals discuss nice ideas, to become the arena of real politics, where people with passionate beliefs just want to get their stuff done.

We hold these truths

alt.religion.scientology was never a quiet newsgroup. It was created on July 17, 1991 by Stuart Goehring. Goehring says he started the newsgroup half as a joke and half as a place to discuss the truth about this religion. But he can have been no Scientologist at the time. He forged the signature "miscaviage@flag.sea.org" on to the message which was used to fund the group - and no true Scientologist would have misspelled the name of CoS leader David Miscavige. In any case, sceptics and believers alike were attracted to the group. While never even coming close to agreement, they managed to exist in the sort of tense balance that the Net seems to specialise in. They even hammered out a more or less stable agreement to have multiple FAQs that introduce newcomers to both sides. These persist to this day. While each side criticises the others' writings, the FAQs do not mysteriously disappear from ftp sites. Even now, the old-timers on the group have a certain tolerance for the Dutch former Scientologist who calls himself "Ron's Inspector" and believes he's in touch with L Ron Hubbard telepathically.

Hubbard was a pulp-fiction writer by trade, who founded Scientology in the 1950s, and died in 1986. His published books, monographs, internal policy documents and taped lectures form what the Church of Scientology calls its "Sacred Scriptures". The more advanced materials are kept closely guarded. Hubbard claimed that exposure to the secrets of an "Operating Thetan", as the CoS refers to its acolytes, could harm, even kill, the partly initiated. As the arguments over Scientology heated up, protecting these materials from disclosure and criticism rapidly moved to the centre of the fight.

One of the first steps towards open warfare over Scientology was the emergence, in about 1992, of a group that wanted to separate the church and its scriptures. Calling themselves the "Free Zone", these are people who have left the CoS but still want to practice its teachings - use "the tech", as they say. Former Scientologist Homer Smith is one of these. Wanting to encourage serious discussion of the tech, Smith set up a second newsgroup, alt.clearing.technology. Occasionally, in older guides to the Internet, you'll see a note explaining that alt.clearing.technology is for discussing acne cures. This was another Usenet joke, perpetrated by Chris Schafmeister, a graduate student in molecular biology at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and one of the first sceptics to join the discussion of Scientology on the Net.

Perhaps because of the threat implied by the Free Zone to the CoS's control over its scriptures, or perhaps simply because Usenet was beginning to move off the terminals of techies and into the mainstream, by early 1994 alt.religion.scientology had begun to attract more than passing interest from official - or at least official-sounding - circles in the Church of Scientology. Chris Schafmeister, he of the acne cures, made the connection. A strident critic of Scientology, Schafmeister says his interest in Scientology began when he started seeing posters on the walls of the medical school at UCSF. He was, he says, "really, really upset" at the way these posters targeted the sick, the sad and the bereaved, hoping to get them into $60 Scientology courses. Accordingly, he took to spending his study breaks arguing against the organisation on Usenet.

It was, he says, a Scientologist who gave him a copy of a letter from a CoS 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 (OSA), which former insiders say is the CoS's security branch. Addressed to Scientologists on the Net, the letter said in part, "If you imagine 40-50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we'll just run the SPs [for "suppressive persons", which is how Scientologists refer to those excommunicated from their church] right off the system. It will be quite simple, actually." She closed with, "I would like to hear from you on your ideas to make the Internet a safe space for Scientology to expand into."

CoS lawyer Helena Kobrin, asked recently about the letter by e-mail, said, "Ms Siegel's letter was not an official Church policy." Things might be different now if the CoS had said so at the time. The letter was much copied and its widespread circulation brought a new group into the arguments over Scientology: people who wanted to defend the Net against what many saw as an attempt to censor it. Many of them knew nothing about Scientology except that letter, and they were incensed. Others knew a lot about Scientology, and were incensed for different reasons. Chief among them was Dennis Erlich.

Erlich was in the CoS for 15 years. He left in 1982 after what he describes as a failed attempt to reform the CoS from within. "That made me persona non grata, and they couldn't work with me because I wouldn't follow their orders any more." He was declared an SP, and has since devoted himself to debunking the CoS at every opportunity. He is most definitely not a Free Zoner. Indeed, so fierce are Erlich's convictions that it is hard to imagine a situation in which he could come to any sort of amicable agreement with Scientologists or they with him.

By the end of 1994, alt.religion.scientology was transformed from newsgroup to battlefield. Over its electronic terrain were fought a confused series of sharply escalating skirmishes between the Church of Scientology, its supporters, its detractors and a variety of other groups - some of whom got involved to defend freedom of speech on the Net and others who seem to have been attracted mostly by the prospect of a good fight. There have as yet been no outright winners or losers. But the blows dealt out to the wounded raise fundamental issues about the Internet and its freedoms.

Duelling cancel-bots

Shortly before Christmas 1994, messages started mysteriously disappearing from alt.religion.scientology. The contents of all of them are not known, for obvious reasons. But there was no shortage of people willing to guess at the reasons for their disappearance, or to point an accusing finger. The hard part was getting any real evidence as to who was doing what. For in the self-organising world of the Net, things can be made to disappear almost as spontaneously as they appear.

Most newsreaders have cancellation facilities built into them. This enables someone to take back their words - for whatever reason - by sending out a cancellation message, which instructs the system to ignore the cancelled posting. Surprisingly, this does actually work. You'd think the cancel message would just chase the original message around the Net and always lose. But because of the way Usenet is constructed, the cancel message is unlikely to follow the same route as the original posting, and as long as it gets to the centres of distribution first, it will win. And in practice it often does.

To cancel somebody else's message, all the would-be censor has to do is to forge that person's identification to the cancellation message - which is not all that hard to do. There are legitimate - or at least Net-approved - reasons for forging cancellations. CancelMoose, for example, removes spam, the post-Canter & Siegel term for messages inappropriately posted all over the Net. When activated, the CancelMoose typically culls messages posted to 25 or more newsgroups, of widely varying content.

Typically those who operate under the name of CancelMoose take full, open responsibility for their actions - in fact they advertise them as a sort of public service. The cancellations on alt.religion.scientology were different. The messages which disappeared were sent only to a single newsgroup - and nobody ever claimed responsibility for the cancellations. So this being the Net, a program was developed to get a look at what was being cancelled: Lazarus.

Lazarus was Chris Schafmeister's idea. Every Usenet message is assigned a unique identifying number when it's written. Lazarus is set to work at a site that has disabled its cancellation facility (a few do, for various reasons). Once there, it compares the identification of the cancelled message with those of the messages on some newsgroup, in this case alt.religion.scientology. In theory, Lazarus could reinstate the posting, but because people do legitimately cancel their own postings sometimes, Lazarus just puts up a note saying that a message has been cancelled and it reports any information about the reasons for cancellation that might have been included in the cancellation message. It's then up to the original poster to reinstate the message if he or she wants 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 cancelled," says Schafmeister. Lazarus cannot pierce the forgery to discover who has cancelled which messages. But when messages from critics of Scientology began to disappear, some on the Net were only too ready to jump to conclusions - even more so when Lazarus began reporting that messages had been "CANCELLED BECAUSE OF COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT".

Nobody has claimed responsibility for cancelling the messages on alt.religion.scientology. When asked about the cancellations, Helena Kobrin of the CoS 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." But whatever was going on, many on the Net were not about to take it lying down. "Just about everybody got hit," wrote William C Barwell, who signs himself "Pope Charles" and is one of the joking Church of the SubGenius, Praise Bob! crowd. "I myself had two posts cancelled." Then Barwell discovered the law in the form of USC Title 18, part I, chapter 121, "Unlawful access to stored communications". This includes provisions outlawing unauthorised access to and malicious destruction of an electronic message; it also prevents unauthorised access to or alteration of electronic communications. Barwell felt all of these conditions applied to the forged cancellations. At the beginning of March, Barwell wrote a letter to the FBI asking them to enforce the code, with copies to Netcom and his own service provider, Neosoft. Netcom closed the accounts of those cancelling from its system. When cancellations started coming from Deltanet, a Southern Californian Internet-service provider, accounts there were also rapidly shut down. But more recently cancellations have moved to public news servers like the one at London's Demon Internet Limited, which make it relatively easy to cancel messages anonymously.

You can't say that here

Making messages disappear is only one way to stop annoying discussion (as the critics tell it) or copyright violations (as the CoS puts it). The Church of Scientology was pursuing other tactics. One was to stop messages at their source, the other to put an end to the whole newsgroup. On January 3, 1995, about a week after the cancellations started, Julf Helsingius, the operator of the best-known anonymous re-mailer, anon.penet.fi, posted a copy of a letter he had received from Helena Kobrin on behalf of Thomas M Small, counsel for the RTC and Bridge Publications (publisher of Hubbard's work). Kobrin was requesting that he block access from his re-mailers to alt.religion.scientology and alt.clearing.technology on the grounds that the re-mailers were being used as conduits for stolen copyrighted materials. Copies of the letter had also been sent to four other anonymous re-mailers. On January 9, Helsingius replied that monitoring postings is impossible, and that he didn't feel blocking any groups was appropriate - in other words, forget it.

On January 11, Helena Kobrin posted a message in alt.config - the newsgroup in which users propose the establishment of new newsgroups in the alt.* hierarchy, and the deletion of old ones. Kobrin's message said "We request that you remove the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup from your site. The reasons for requesting its removal are: (1) it was started with a forged message; (2) not discussed on alt.config; (3) it has the name "Scientology" in its title which is a trademark and is misleading, as alt.religion.scientology is mainly used for flamers to attack the Scientology religion; (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." As is usual with any attempt to impose authority on the anarchic alt.* newsgroups, Kobrin was told to forget it.

Enter Interpol

Meanwhile, back at the newsgroup, reasoned debate - well, more or less reasoned, at least - was degenerating into name-calling. Bashers posted affidavits from former Scientologists alleging corruption; Scientologists posted critiques of those affidavits alleging that the authors were known criminals. One such affidavit was signed by Erlich's wife, Rosa, and alleged he had abused their daughter. This didn't deter Erlich, who denied the allegations and went on posting quotations from CoS 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 US Internet providers. The sysop of support.com, Tom Klemesrud, says that in early January he was approached by Helena Kobrin, who requested that he delete Erlich's Internet account, which he refused to do. In mid-January, Klemesrud reported a truly bizarre incident in which his apartment was smeared with blood by a young woman he had met in a bar - although exactly how and why nobody is ever likely to know for sure. Klemesrud claims that this was an attack meant to frighten him into removing Erlich's account.

On January 23, a poster signing himself "-AB" from an144108@anon.penet.fi, an account on Julf Helsingius's anonymous re-mailer in Finland, put up an opposing account, allegedly based on an interview with the woman in question, that claimed that Klemesrud was the attacker rather than the victim. And here the tale grows even more bizarre. On February 2, Helsingius was contacted by an American CoS representative saying that information from a closed, private CoS system had been made public through anon.penet.fi and that the CoS had reported a burglary to the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI. The representative wanted the identity of the individual who had posted the material. Helsingius refused, and was told a request was on its way to the Finnish police through Interpol.

On February 8, the Finnish police arrived with a warrant. Helsingius managed to give up only the single ID that the CoS 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 CoS. Helsingius has since confirmed that the ID the CoS wanted was an144108@anon.penet.fi. 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 centred 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 is being taken against the anon-poster whose ID was handed over, she said, "The matter is under investigation. I cannot comment." The CoS, when asked who was undertaking the investigation, did not reply.

Drop that disk

On the day that the Finnish police visited Helsingius, the Religious Technology Center (RTC), the CoS arm that is the exclusive licensee for some of Hubbard's works, filed a complaint in San José, California, against Dennis Erlich and his Internet-service pro-viders, Tom Klemesrud and Netcom. The complaint was that Erlich had been posting CoS materials in violation of copyright and, in the case of upper-level materials, posting unpublished and confidential materials. The CoS calls them trade secrets, and says that the issue is one of theft, not of free speech.

On February 10, Judge Ronald M Whyte in San Jose, California, issued a temporary restraining order against all three - Erlich, Klemesrud and Netcom - which commanded them to stop. Erlich argues that all his postings are merely fair use. "The most effective way I can discredit the cult is to use their own documents to show what they're about." On February 13 Erlich's residence in Glendale, California, was raided. Erlich claims his constitutional rights were violated by the raid, in which, he says, floppy disks, books and papers were seized, files were deleted from his hard drive and his house was comprehensively searched and photographed. Afterwards, he claims, two of his computers would not boot properly and he was left with no back-ups from which to restore his system; nor was he given an inventory of the materials that were taken.

There has been a flurry of legal activity since then. Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Erlich is being defended by the high-profile California law firm of Morrison Foerster. So far, the temporary restraining order against Klemesrud and Netcom has been dissolved. Although the CoS has filed a request to have it reinstated, the Net is breathing a sigh of relief.

As both Klemesrud and Netcom explained, they know they cannot police the flow of information across their computers. Even if Erlich has committed a crime, 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. As for Erlich, however, the CoS has also filed a motion to hold Erlich in contempt of court for reposting one of the articles the CoS objected to in the first place.

In a prepared statement, 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 unauthorised, 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 smokescreen to divert attention away from his illegal activities."

The talk goes on

So what does it mean, all this argument? Well, for alt.religion.scientology, warfare has brought unprecedented popularity. Throughout March, alt.religion.scientology grew to something like 2,500 postings a week - including something to offend everyone - and the battles began spilling across into alt.journalism, news.admin.misc, alt.current-events.net-abuse and even, with the Scamizdat postings, alt.2600 - which wasn't too thrilled at the incomers, even though they had to admit there was something like hacking involved in anonymously posting secret scriptures. By almost any measure - messages, volume, readership - the newsgroup had become one of the 40 most popular on the Net. Some messages are, worryingly, still continuing to disappear, but attempts to censor the newsgroup as a whole have backfired - spectacularly.

Having so far failed to beat the newsgroup, the CoS is joining it. More and more "official posters" are joining the alt.religion.scientology - indeed some joke that the church members are so prolific that they must post in teams. One of these, Andrew Milne, who describes himself as a "Church staff member" has become one of the three most prolific posters to alt.religion.scientology.

Stu Sjouwerman, a Scientologist and part-owner of a computer company, has started a mailing list for Scientologists, which, he says, is "working out great! Over 200 participants and expanding rapidly. About 15-20 messages per day!" And then there's Scamizdat, still posting Scientology scriptures anonymously - taking the law into his own hands.

A day or so after I'd let it be known I'd welcome a quote from this person about his or her activities, an anonymous message landed in my e-mail box. It read: "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."

But did it all matter? Sjouwerman, snug in the success of his mailing list, dismisses it as another electronic controversy. "alt.religion.scientology is less than 0.002 per cent of the whole Net. Couple of dogs barking, that's all."

Robert Vaughn Young takes a darker view. He is a former Scientologist who doesn't post to the newsgroup, but nonetheless seems to be constantly aware of what's going on in it. He was also a national PR spokesman for the CoS. "I am thankful I'm not having to face the Net," he says, frankly. "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, for the first time, the first place in the world where Scientology can be openly and freely discussed." If that's true, given that freedom of speech and freedom of religion have traditionally gone hand in hand, that would be a victory for everybody.

Wendy M Grossman (wendygo@delphi.com) is a writer, recovering folksinger, and founder and former editor of UK's Skeptic magazine.