Battling Scientology

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  October 23, 2008

Housh seems to view himself and his cohorts as Web-savvy Paul Reveres, sounding the alarm about encroaching Internet transgressions. “Originally, this was about ‘You don’t do that on our Internets,’ ” says Housh. “They need to understand that, and these are the lessons they learn when they piss people off. You have to play nice — they did not have the right to pull that.” As Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, explained to the Phoenix, the removal was not warranted, since the CoS can’t quantitatively prove that the leak affected any specific Scientology product’s market value. As of now, it can be found on YouTube.

081017_anonymous_main4
PERSISTENT PROTESTERS: Anonymous claims that approximately 10,000 people worldwide participated in the group’s first protest, held February 10. Since then, Anonymous protesters in Boston have rallied outside the church’s Beacon Street property eight times.

From the Web to the real world
Housh and his Anonymous peers are hardly the first to fight the CoS online. The original anti-Scientology Web site, the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, debuted on Usenet in July 1991. For its first three years, the site actually served as a forum for believers and dissenters to exchange opinions, but by 1994 users on the Scientology side had had enough. A memo written by CoS staffer Elaine Siegel addressed church strategy vis-à-vis dealing with dissenters on the Web. “If you imagine 40 to 50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we’ll just run the SPs [Suppressive Persons] right off the system. It will be quite simple . . . I would like to hear from you on your ideas to make the Internet a safe space for Scientology to expand into.” Her memo seemed to enrage secular alt.religion.scientology regulars.

The CoS did more than just post pro-Scientology messages where opposition surfaced. In 1995, it turned to the justice system, claiming that its copyrighted files were being illegally posted on alt.religion.scientology. The dispute over such materials, which parishioners pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain on their journey — or “bridge” — to enlightenment, has been the centerpiece of most CoS feuds with Web detractors. That year, the FBI raided several Usenet posters’ homes, including that of former Scientologist Arnaldo Lerma in Arlington, Virginia, seizing his computer and data-storage devices.

The CoS has a well-documented history of battling opponents: Boston attorney Michael Flynn, who filed lawsuits through the 1980s on behalf of former CoS devotees, was sued more than a dozen times. Reporters, who CoS founder Hubbard labeled “merchants of chaos,” have also been targeted; former Time magazine journalist Richard Behar, whose 1991 exposé “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power” provoked widespread anti-CoS sentiment, found himself under surveillance by CoS investigators while his magazine was sued for $416 million. (The suit was ultimately dismissed, but only after Time Warner Inc. spent $7 million defending itself.) But whereas individuals and even corporations were relatively easy to tie up in lawsuits, the Web posed a newer, less containable wave of protest. In a December 1995 Wired article titled “alt.scientology.war,” writer Wendy M. Grossman described the rift as “mortal combat between two alien cultures. . . . A fight that has burst the banks of the Net and into the real world of police, lawyers, and armed search and seizure.” (The CoS declined to comment on copyright-related litigation.)

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