Scientology, critics collide in Internet copyright case

FOCUS, vol. 25, no. 1, October 1995, page 4

by Declan McCullagh (

A flame-war raging on the Internet over the Church of Scientology's attempts to halt the distribution of its bizarre secret scriptures has spread to Carnegie Mellon University.

When SCS senior research scientist Dave Touretzky placed a copy of a Scientology tract on the World Wide Web in August, the church immediately moved to cancel his netnews posts that mentioned the web pages. It also faxed printouts of the pages to CMU's attorneys and threatened a lawsuit over "trade secret violations."

The same day, University Attorney Walter DeForest called Touretzky, who agreed to remove the 136-page tract from his web site. "DeForest didn"t know what the legal status was of the court records and copyrighted documents. He was going to research this. In order to spare CMU and myself an unnecessary lawsuit, I voluntarily took the materials down," says Touretzky.

Complicating the problem for CMU was the files' origin. Touretzky's web site contained documents that were then available to anyone who walked into the federal court building in Los Angeles. The court documents were later sealed after attorneys for Scientology successfully argued that copyright laws prohibiting unauthorized republication apply to the documents.

"This is not an easy area of the law since it combines the Internet with controversial subjects," DeForest says. "It's normal and appropriate for a university to respect copyright -- if it exists. It's consistent with academic freedom."

The threats against CMU are the most recent in a series of lawsuits the church has filed against Internet service providers, newspapers, magazines -- and especially against its critics, who argue Scientology is a cult that brainwashes and blackmails its members and harasses defectors and critics.

"The Church of Scientology has made a practice of suing people who have been critics of their practices or their tactics. The fact is that these lawsuits are not meritorious," says Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group based in San Francisco.

In August the church sued one of its former members for posting anti-church information to the Internet and persuaded a federal judge to permit the seizure of his computer. The church then sued The Washington Post for reporting on the computer seizure and quoting from public court records. Ironically, the court documents were generated by Scientology's previous lawsuit against TIME magazine, which in 1991 ran a cover story calling the church a "thriving cult of greed and power."

Despite Scientology's best efforts, its religious teachings remain publicly available on the Internet -- not just because of the efforts of critics and free-speech advocates, but because network users delight in passing around the excerpts, which read like one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's pulp science fiction novels.

Hubbard's scriptures claim that 75 million years ago an evil galactic overlord named Xenu solved the galaxy's overpopulation problem by freezing the excess population and transporting the bodies to Teegeeack, now called Earth. After the hapless travelers were defrosted, they were chained to volcanoes that were blown up by hydrogen bombs. Then, Hubbard writes in Operating Thetan 7: "The Pacific area ones were taken in boxes to Hawaii and the Atlantic area ones to Las Palmas and there "packaged." His name was Xenu. He used renegades."

Elsewhere in the scriptures, Hubbard requires church acolytes to go to a park or a zoo "with many types of life and communicate with each of them until you know the communication is received and, if possible, returned." The disembodied spirits of the dead are called "thetans" and supposedly still haunt mankind, but Scientology offers ways to "audit" them away -- for a price.

Church members pay tens of thousands of dollars and wait years before they"re "cleared" for this "Operating Thetan" (OT) knowledge. (They"re required to wait this long. The tracts threaten pneumonia if the mentally unprepared read the OT texts.) Now, to the church's dismay, any of the Internet's 35 million users can peruse the most private -- and lucrative -- teachings of Scientology. The band of online dissidents understands this. Many are former church members who became disaffected and left. Some have used a private anti-cult bulletin board system in Colorado to distribute news on the activities of the church. Others have relied on netnews.alt.religion.scientology, a Usenet newsgroup, to disseminate information about Scientology tactics.

If alt.religion.scientology is the front line of the war on the Internet, then the newsgroup is the Internet's equivalent of a food fight in a school cafeteria. The attacks on the church flowing through alt.religion.scientology once prompted a church attorney to try and delete the newsgroup from every computer on the Internet via an "rmgroup" control message.

That raised the netiquette hackles of many Internet users and escalated the online fight from a small-scale battle into a full-scale war. It's one the church can"t win, says EFF's Godwin. "The church is going to lose. They"re making so many people angry that they"re succeeding in motivating people to become critics," says Godwin.

On the WELL, a computer conferencing system in California, Godwin posted: "If the Church wanted the records sealed, it could have sought that. In the meantime, copyright interests do not normally trump the public's right to know the details of court proceedings." Another participant in the discussion, Jerod Pore, wrote that alt.reli-gion.scientology is "the site of the most vicious flame-war on the Net: a flame-war that includes forged cancels of articles, with the forgeries coming from sites such as the Department of Energy, real lawsuits being filed to shut people up, death threats, midnight phone calls and the like."

Other net-skirmishes have touched upon Scientology's attempts to censor anti-church netnews posts by deleting them from Usenet servers; the church's threats to sue people who posted the above-quoted lines about communicating with animals at the zoo; the church's attempt to file university disciplinary charges against a California college student; the church's attempt to force Caltech to reveal the identity of one of its alumni users; and the church's attempt to remove the contents of a web page maintained by an MIT user.

But perhaps what riled online "netizens" the most was the church's raids on Finland's anonymous remailer and on the Colorado anti-cult bulletin board system. In both cases, the church was able to seize information to protect its "trade secrets" under international law. The secrets in question? Xenu and the galactic conspiracy. On the Internet, thousands of users every day rely on Julf Helsingus' server to communicate anonymously with other users or post to controversial netnews bboards under a numerical pseudonym automatically assigned by his computer. When Scientology and the Finnish police forced Helsingus to reveal the true name of one of his users, his subscribers on the Internet realized how vulnerable their identities were.

And more sparks started flying on alt.religion.scientology. Recently, the 41-year-old church has experienced setbacks in its attempts to stifle its critics. Last month, a federal judge in Colorado upheld free speech claims and ordered Scientology to return the computers and files seized from two men who ran an anti-Scientology bulletin board. An ad-hoc group of network users formed and successfully fought the church's attempts to cancel netnews posts. On September 15, the judge in The Washington Post case said she thought the newspaper had acted appropriately in printing the Xenu excerpts and that Scientology had gone too far in snooping through the computer they seized in August. She ordered the church to "immediately return and restore to [the defendant] all seized materials in their exact original condition." The uproar from the church's raids on computers worldwide is why CMU's Touretzky became involved. "I realized there was a great interest in this material and I knew about the forged cancels. I wanted to further an educational purpose in a way that would be protected from vandals," says Touretzky.

Even though Touretzky has removed the court records from his site, he maintains a list of their current locations on the Internet. After Scientology threatened an Internet service provider in the Netherlands, Dutch collections of the United States documents sprouted overnight. "Many of the Dutch sites are copies of my site. My site's still up, but with hyperlinks to the Dutch sites," Touretzky says.

A member of the Dutch House of Commons has put the materials on his home page, and the materials are popping up elsewhere. Once Xenu is out of the bottle, there's no putting him back.


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FOCUS -- in seven issues a year -- is a publication of the faculty and staff of Carnegie Mellon University. Many of the articles in FOCUS express the opinions of individual members of the CMU community; unless so indicated, they should not be construed as reflecting university policy.