Scientology's Internet Wars
Note: This article, published in 1996, details Internet strategies and tactics which are still employed by the Church of Scientology.
On March 12, 1996, Scientologists lost the latest skirmish in their ongoing Internet Wars when a Dutch judge acquitted Karin Spaink, et. al., of all charges. The Church of Scientology is currently locked in an international legal war to remove copies of their super-secret "scriptures" from the Internet. In the US, Scientologists have obtained federal court orders to raid and confiscate alleged "trade secrets" from the homes and offices of four of their most vocal critics, slapped lawsuits on Internet service providers, and sued the Washington Post when it ran a related news article. In other attempts to block public access to the materials, lawyers representing the church have threatened legal action against scores of others including Carnegie-Mellon University. Watchman Fellowship has been threatened with legal action by Scientology concerning these "scriptures" as well.
The war has also spread overseas. In the Netherlands, Scientology officials filed lawsuits against 23 parties, 15 Internet service providers, a major Dutch newspaper, and a corporation that is part of the Rotterdam municipal government. In Finland, Scientologists went after Johan Helsingius who operates an anonymous remailer service established to guard the privacy of individuals who wish to protect their identity when sending e-mail. Helsingius was eventually forced to release confidential client information. Critics of the cult allegedly countered efforts to delete the secret scriptures by posting copies on Internet computer servers located in the People's Republic of China. In theory, the Bejing government would have little patience with attorneys representing an American cult concerning "scripture" copyrights.
In addition to legal attacks, critics of Scientology claim that they have been stalked by private investigators, had their phones tapped, and endured Scientology harassment of their employers and friends. Former Scientologists also claim that messages critical of Scientology are mysteriously disappearing from the Internet through anonymously forged "cancel" messages which sparked a high-tech game of cat and mouse. Critics of Scientology teamed with free-speech advocates calling themselves "Rabbit Hunters" are tracking the hacker known as "Cancel Bunny" through cyberspace in an attempt to identify the culprit and repair the damage. (For a more complete overview of major events in 1995 seeWired, "alt.scientology.war," December 1995, p. 172,
It sounds like the plot of one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction novels. The lawsuits and harassment, however, are far from fictional. They are Scientology's weapons of choice in its battle to block the public's access to bizarre and controversial documents known in the cult's jargon by the initials OT.
OT Phone Home
Scientologists claim that illegal copies of Hubbard's ultra-secret scriptures known as Advanced Technology or Operating Thetan (OT) have been loosed by "copyright terrorists" on to the Internet where virtually anyone in the world with a phone and computer can download copies. Scientologists desperately want them back - all of them. OT level documents are reserved for high-level Scientologists who pay as much as $380,000 for glimpses of the texts according to some former members (Internet World, December 1995, p. 78, http://pubs.iworld.com/iw-online/Dec95/scientol.html). If the wrong people download OT, Scientologists claim very bad things can happen.
Mocking dire "warnings" that reading OT "tech" without proper training can kill you, one Internet poster quipped, "This may be true...while reading OT, I almost died laughing." Some former Scientologists believe that this is the church's real fear. This issue is not just the loss of money from expensive OT courses, but loss of credibility. The general public must never see OT. One free download at 28.8K could destroy in seconds any positive PR the church has spent a fortune over decades trying to build.
The OT literature builds upon Scientology's already far-fetched cosmology. According to one magazine's account, the church believes that, "75 Million years ago a galactic tyrant named Xenu solved the overpopulation problem of his 75-planet federation by transporting the excess people to Earth, chaining them to volcanoes, and dropping H-bombs on them. The unfortunates became what Scientology founder and science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard called 'thetans,' which now attach themselves to people, causing all sorts of problems" (Ibid., p. 76; see related Expositor story, "Hubbard's Religion," on page 9, this issue).
Critics believe that the OT "scriptures" contain such far-fetched and incredulous sci-fi theories that only "true believers" whose minds have been conditioned by years of mind-numbing techniques can take them seriously. The church counters that it is simply protecting its legal rights, "This is a simple copyright, trade-secrets case" Scientology attorney Todd Blakely told The Denver Post, after church representatives accompanied by Federal marshals and armed with a court order, raided the homes of former members Lawrence Wollersheim and Bob Penny seizing their computers, and hundreds of diskettes, along with documents and records (The Denver Post, 23 August 1995, p. 1A).
Regardless of their motives, the church does not tolerate OT leaks. Scientology's powerful legal department and their dreaded Office of Special Affairs (OSA) are quick to pounce on critics and former members whom they call "suppressive persons" (SPs).
Even a brief quote from the OT literature can attract the church's ire. Scientologist slapped a lawsuit onThe Washington Post demanding the newspaper surrender all copies of all OT materials after the newspaper printed a brief description of the OT material and quoted a few sentences. The article, written by Marc Fisher, said of the OT materials: "They are written in the dense jargon of the church: 'If you do OT IV and he's still in his head, all is not lost, you have other actions you can take. Clusters, Prep-Checks, failed to exteriorise directions.'
"Scientology's jargon is often similar to the self-actualization lingo used by self-help groups that emerged from California in the 1960s and '70s. Like est and Lifespring, it includes concentration exercises in which trainees sharpen their perceptive abilities by focusing deeply on objects or people around them. In one high-level OT session, trainees are asked to pick an object, 'wrap an energy beam around it' and pull themselves toward the object. Another instructs the trainee to 'be in the following places - the room, the sky, the moon, the sun'" (The Washington Post, 19 August 1995, p. C-5).
The Washington Post won their case. Scientologists were required to pay all of the newspaper's legal fees when the court determined that the Post's quotations were within fair use doctrine of the US copyright law. In her ruling, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema chastised Scientology saying, "The court finds the motivation of plaintiff in filing this lawsuit against The Post is reprehensible." Brinkema noted that while Scientologists had "brought the complaint under traditional secular concepts of copyright and trade secret law, it has become clear that a much broader motivation prevailed - the stifling of criticism and dissent of the religious practice of Scientology and the destruction of its opponents" (Ibid., 29 November 1995, p. D3).
The Fishman Papers
If quoting a few words sparks a lawsuit, what happens when entire, unedited OT documents are broadcast to the world? Ex-Scientologist Arnie Lerma found out after he posted transcripts of a controversial lawsuit known as the Fishman Case.
"In Lerma's case, the bone of contention is a set of August 2, 1995 postings [on the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology] 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 [until recently] from the LA federal court house - 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" (Wired, December 1995, p. 252).
Raiders of the Lost "Tech"
Thousands of copies - around the world - how would the church respond? Lerma found out Saturday, August 12 at 9:30 A.M. when he answered a knock at the front door of his Arlington, Virginia home. Federal Marshals, Scientology lawyers, computer technicians, and cameramen swept through his home. Armed with a court order, Scientologists pored over Lerma's computer files, records, and private correspondence. "They stayed for three hours last Saturday. They inventoried and confiscated everything Lerma cherished: his computer, every disk in the place, his client list, his phone numbers. And then they left. 'I'm one of those guys who keeps everything - my whole life - on the computer,' Lerma says. 'And now they have it all'" (The Washington Post, 19 August 1995, p. C1).
After a string of losses, Scientologists won, at least for the time being, their case against Lerma when U.S. district court judge, Leonie Brinkema, issued a summary judgement against Lerma on January 19, 1996. Lerma plans an appeal (The American Lawyer, March 1996, pp. 69, 77).
Lerma was not the first victim of a raid. The home of former Scientologist, Dennis Erlich, had already been raided on February 13, 1995. Church officials brandishing a court order and accompanied by off-duty police officers, confiscated more than 360 computer disks, and 29 books in addition to his computer and software, according to Erlich. They also sued both the small computer bulletin board company that provided Erlich access to Usenet, and the large Internet service provider, Netcom (Los Angeles Times, 14 February, 1995, p. B-3).
A few days after the Lerma raid, former Scientologists Lawrence Wollersheim and Robert Penny were hit in their Boulder and Longmont, Colorado homes. "Shortly after the crack of dawn on August 22, 1995 agents of the Religious Technology Center, a corporate affiliate of the Church of Scientology, watched as Federal marshals kicked in the door to the FACTNet office. FACTNet is a non-profit computer bulletin board and electronic lending library in prominent opposition to the Church of Scientology. The raid, which took place at two Colorado locations simultaneously, lasted eight hours. Three computers, over one thousand computer discs and approximately seven gigabytes of digital information were seized in addition to over 100,000 documents" (Gauntlet, Issue 10, 1995, p. 116).
Scientologists are still seeking to get their hands on one anonymous poster known only by the code name "Scamizdat." "Scamizdat's postings - 11 to date - contain large chunks of the Scientology secret materials, up to 21 documents at a time" (Wired, p. 252). Based on circumstantial evidence, the church believes they have uncovered the identity of Scamizdat, Grady Ward, a computer lexicographer from Arcata, California. On 21 March, 1996, the church filed a lawsuit and obtained a Temporary Restraining Order against Ward who claims he has nothing to do with Scamizdat.
The Genie is out of the Bottle
Scientology's choice of tactics have proven to be a public relations blunder of galactic proportions. The church's strategy to silence its critics is also wrong-headed because it can never work in cyberspace.
The nature of the Internet makes it impossible to "recall" information once it has been posted. In seconds, data is replicated, multiplied, crosses international boundaries and is made available to millions of computers globally. The genie is out of the bottle. There is no way to even estimate how many copies of the OT documents are out there now - much less to track them all down and delete them. Even now, after all of their efforts to block availability, anyone on the Internet can easily find copies of OT literature by searching for the words "Fishman" and "Scientology" using common search services like Lycos (http://www.lycos.com/).
No Longer a Secret
Even Cable News Network (CNN) is reporting where Internet copies of OT literature can be found. CNN Interactive currently publishes a working link to the page, "The Church of Scientology International v. Fishman and Geertz" which contains direct links to unedited OT materials: (
Technology is quickly outstripping Scientology's efforts to prevent the dissemination. The remailer, anon.penet.fi, is a case in point. Anonymous remailers receive e-mail from clients who do not wish to be identified and "re-mail" the document after stripping the name and location of the original sender. The church spent months of hard work and spent untold thousands of dollars to discover the true identity of one anon.penet.fi client whom they accused of posting a document allegedly stolen from one of Scientology's computers (see http://www2.thecia.net/users/rnewman/scientology/home.html for this story).
In response, critics like Scamizdat have resorted to using a chain of remailers scattered throughout several countries. To trace the source, Scientology attorneys would have to follow the chain backward. In each country they would have to work with different legal systems, file new lawsuits, wait through new appeals, etc. If any remailer routinely destroys their clients' source data, the search stops there.
Dutch Court OK's OT
Even knowing who the foreign posters are, does not guarantee a victory. In the Dutch case, Karin Spaink was sued for copyright infringement and won. In a press release dated 12 March 1996 she explains:
"My homepage contains the Fishman Affidavit - something Scientology protests against. I put up this Affidavit because Scientology chose to raid my provider, xs4all, on Sept. 5, 1995. Scientology did so because Fonss [another client] had a Fishman homepage. After the raid, more and more Fishman homepages went up. At this moment, there are about a hundred of them. Scientology sued some 15 [Internet service] providers, and one individual: me.
"Scientology had refused to prove their claimed copyrights until only a week before the court session; once a notary had stated on Feb. 18 that OT 2, OT 3 and 'Ability' (i.e. Exhibit G) were indeed copyrighted by Scientology, I immediately changed these parts of the Fishman Affidavit and put up an adapted version, making fair use of quotes from the originals. Scientology was not at all satisfied with this change and simply continued the lawsuit, wanting me to remove all materials - i.e. not only the quotes from OT 2 and OT 3, but also OT 1, OT 4, OT 5, OT 6 and OT 7. that is: to material they had not proved their copyrights upon.
"Today the judge announced his verdict. My homepage is quite ok, and I am hereby acquitted on allcounts. I am not infringing upon Scientology's copyright and I have the right to quote from OT 2 and OT 3. My homepage has, in short, been legally approved. The judge considers the parts from the OT's that were used in the Fishman Affidavit to have been legally made public, precisely because they were part from an open court file; hence, they can not be regarded as unpublished material, as Scientology has always claimed."
Adding insult to injury, the court required Scientology to pay the defendants' legal costs. Scientologists were "condemned" to pay fl 2,830 to each of the twenty defendants, a total of fl 56,600 (about $34,000 US).
Ironically, Scientology has chosen to be very public in its efforts to maintain secrecy. The church's high-profile lawsuits, threats, and raids have generated volumes of press coverage - almost all negative. Ron Newman's web site, "Scientology vs. the Net," lists (and provides on-line copies) of over 150 news articles dealing with Scientology and the Internet including stories in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Denver Post, Time magazine, The American Jurist, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, The Australian, Helsingin Sanomat ( Helsinki, Finland), L'Express,(France), The Times of London, The Independent (London), and television coverage on CNN and the BBC (http://www2.thecia.net/users/rnewman/scientology/home.html).
The affect of all this media attention has been the exact opposite of the church's stated goal. Fueled by threats, lawsuits, and raids, the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology has rocketed from obscurity to one of the hottest places on the Net, averaging over 2,700 postings per week last August. "By almost any measure," Wendy Grossman noted, "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 back-fired - spectacularly" (Wired, p. 252).
Few people knew (or cared to know) anything about Scientology's OT materials until their lawyers - with e-mailed threats, press releases, and interviews - loudly broadcast that they were secret. The general public may still not have taken notice had Scientologists not raided the homes of their critics, in what appeared to some as gestapo-like attempts to suppress freedom of speech and religion.
Through the medium of the Internet, Scientology's foes coupled with free-speech advocates sought to focus international attention on the error and abuses of Scientology - an organization described on the cover of Time magazine as "The Cult of Greed" (6 May 1991). Scientology's tactics have accomplished what the ex-members and critics never could have done on their own - given international media exposure to the church's most closely guarded secrets.