Euro-IR Project Main Index

The APC European Internet Rights Project

Internet Censorship Case Study:
The battle against the
$CIENTOLOGY corporation

By Jens Tingleff and Dave Bird.


01. Introduction. This is if anything a larger multi-mode conflict than MacLibel involving, in the last 5 years since the Internet got embroiled it, various major court and direct actions in a handful of countries.

The group was founded by Science Fiction writer L.Ron Hubbard in 1950 as Dianetics, a pseudo-science alternative to psychotherapy treating the mind like an old-style computer which built up a "bank" of bad memories which have to be "cleared" away. It is primarily a business organisation selling courses in that at $2200 per level. It has some elements of organised crime since Hubbard believed anyone critical of it must be criminal, dealt with by finding or inventing crimes which can be used to "shudder him into silence" , and at any rate instructs members to "dead-agent" any critic with personal attacks, ignoring what he says. In latter years it became a political totalitarian movement with aspirations to control governments, founding a paramilitary elite staff in naval uniforms and a "department of government affairs" [HCOPL 5th Aug 1960] instructed, in terms, to steal any government papers hostile to Cof$.

In a 1953 dispute over financial control of the organisation, Hubbard started a new version called Scientology which involved a few elements of reincarnating spirits and hence -- in ordinary terms -- religion. However it continued to present itself as (pseudo-)science until, in 1959, Helen O'Brien suggested it adopt religious guise to avoid taxes and prosecutions. Over time it evolved a progression of elaborate secret courses costing many $10,000s each known as Operating Thetan levels (OTs) and NewEra- Dianetics for Operating Thetans (NOTs). Briefly, Hubbard was based for most of the 1960s at Saint Hill Manor near East Grinstead, the 1970s on board Cof$' own 300ft converted cattle ferry sailing the Mediterranean, and the 1980s at "Flag land base" in Clearwater FLA although many administrative departments are in Los Angeles. Hubbard died in 1986, but Cof$ continues under his successor David Miscavige. The case for scientology can be seen at, and against at such pages as http://www.xs4all/~xemu/ .

02. Prior conflicts. Certain kinds of conflict were thus inevitable even before the Internet became embroiled. (1) Each major critical book[ The Scandal of Scientology by Paulette Cooper 1971, Messiah or Madman by Bent Corydon 1987, A Piece of Blue Sky by UK ex-member Jon Atack 1990, Bare Faced Messiah by UK journalist Russell Miller 1987, ] resulted in lawsuit and personal harassment against the authors; (2) Governments called inquiries into the Scientology cult [ Sir John Foster , UK 1971; Prof. J A Lee in Canada, 1970; Koetze in S.Africa 1973; Sir John Foster in Australia 1965 ]. Eleven senior Scientologists including the founder's wife were convicted in 1979 in the "Operation Snow White" trial of stealing documents from US government offices. There was also a Canadian Snow White case, and the Cof$ were fined $1,000,000 for libelling crown prosecutor Casey Hill. Release of OT and NOTs was also a continuing source of conflict, especially with breakaway groups of dissenting Scientologists.

Internet Battles

03. Introduction. The conflict which hit the Internet, initially over release of OT and NOT documents, spread into a varietyof theatres.(1) There were four major US court-cases [ab-]using copyright to suppress publication, plus one in Holland and one in Sweden; there have been attempts to suppress protests with court injunctions, and to frame critics e.g. for drug possession; critics pushed for both criminal and civil action over the killing by neglect of Lisa MacPherson at the cult's Florida HQ; and one UK critic won a £150,000 libel case over material they circulated against her. (2) On the cult's side they have continued beyond lawsuit into direct action [hacking] to attempt removing, removing articles from, or flooding out with nonsense, the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology . Both sides have used real-life direct action i.e. picketing of cult buildings, and the cult picketing protesters' homes or putting rumours round their neighbours. All internet modes -- web, news, mailing-lists, IRC, remailers -- have been involved in one way or another.

04. Cof$ LawSuits against Netizens.

The real conflict began in August 1995. The case was (a) Fishman and Gertz vs Cof$, court details, in which Fishman briefly put the text of the O.T.Levels into public court records. This was just at that "take-off" in the Internet's growth curve where such a thing was bound to spread. And spread it did, from Dave Touretzky's page at Carnegie Melon University to strange places all over the world, followed by the Scientology cult in a desperate attempt to stop the flow. It matters little Fishman was unstable and the case got nowhere, once the OTs were out.

(b1)The next step was that the material was posted on Usenet and Dennis Erlich, formerly a senior Cof$ official, quoted some verifying it was genuine. Erlich was provided with lawyers Morrison and Forester by the ACLU. Around summer 1999 Erlich settled, including an agreement not to further discuss these matters. However, Keith Henson says a senior Cof$ person shouted at him you "want five million dollars like Erlich".

(b2)At about the same time Arnie Lerma in Montana posted some of the material and was also sued. He passed it to the Washington Times, who printed the famous six lines from O.T.Level Seven directing adepts to communicate telepathically with plants and trees. The case against the paper was struck out entirely. Lerma was held to have committed five copyright violations at the minimum $500 each, and no costs awarded.

(c1) By this time the OTs were largely resident in Holland, with magazine journalist Karin Spaink and others. The cult had ISP xs4all raided, and brought a case against Spaink and co. Because the cult were notably reluctant to prove their ownership, they got an order removing a few specific documents and little else. The material was repeatedly getting onto usenet via chained encrypted remailers, and the cult were unable to crack the security.

(c2) Later Zenon Panoussisin Sweden began to openly repost the NOTs, which had been circulated anonymously. A court-case there resulted in nominal fines. However, it made the NOTs "public open papers" which the state can issue to any individual citizen, or indeed foreigner, who covers the administrative costs of doing so. There has been pressure from the USA to alter the Swedish constitution on this point, but so far it has been defeated in the courts. Ironically Zenon now lives with Karin in Amsterdam, so some joy has come of all this wrangling.

(d1) There were two further US cases concerning the NOTs. Grady Ward is an expert in lexicography and cryptography who, with Patrick Juola, made the check-word system for PGP6 [page 224 of Manual]. Ward was accused of being the anonymous Scamizdat who posted NOTs through chained remailers. Without an ounce of proof the court decided "we know you did it you cocky so and so, and the plaintiff's proposed settlement is the outcome even tho' you never agreed it as law requires." He is technically bankrupt and has to pay peanuts per month, so is not exactly feeling crushed.

(d2)Keith Hensonis associated with such weird and speculative real science as the L5 society, and nano-technology. He became involved with NOTs when he -- accurately -- wrote an open letter to a court saying it was instructions to break earlier court orders. His sense of the absurd annoyed a jury into inflicting the ridiculously high penalty of $75,000, which he cannot pay because he is bankrupt. There is a further case against Henson's expression as picketing where Riverside County DA's office is attempting to change him for "threatening Cof$ with cruise-missiles" over joking about GPS coordinates. For all the absurdity of the charge he could be jailed for a year if he is.

05. Netizens' lawsuits against Cof$.

(a) As noted earlier under "Snow White", Canadian crown Prosecutor Casey Hill took libel action Cof$ attacks on him. In Britain, Bonnie Woods , an American former Cof$ member who came to live here with her British husband, sued Cof$ for libel over leaflets about her distributed in her high-street and neighbourhood in 1993; Cof$ tried to crush them by weight of expenditure and frivolous motions. One of us [Bird] asked the General Secretary of MCCL/Liberty to consider this on its merits, and he arranged for Allen and Overy to represent her pro bono. The case rolled inexorably to trial in 1999 where Cof$ caved in on the first day for £150,000.

(b) On Dec 5th 1995 Lisa MacPherson died at the cult's Fort Harrison Hotel building in Clearwater Florida: they had held her there for 17 days while she was too psychotic to take food or drink for herself and she died, after severe weight loss, from a blood clot likely due to dehydration. This came to notice when Netizen's spotted the Fort Harrison address among deaths listed on a police web-site. A state prosecution collapsed after the medical examiner, Joan Wood, changed her evidence under lobbying from Cof$, and she subsequently lost the post of M.E. . The family are still pursuing civil action financed by net-activist Bob Minton .

06. Cof$ Hacktivim against the Net.

Cof$ have a low threshold for dealing with critical speech by hostile direct action, and they have not hesitated to use hacking against the Net.
(a) On 11th Jan 1995 aCof$ lawyer, Helena 'Handbasket' Kobrin, issued an RMGROUP control message designed to cause the removal of alt.religion.scientologyfrom news servers around the world: because Cof$ owned the trademark Scientology and they didn't want a newsgroup about it. She may nave conceived this as something she had lawful authority to do, but it was met with widespread anger and ridicule and resulted in her being elected usenet Kook Of The Month for March 1995.

(b) In August 1995 the release of the OT levels onto a CMU website led to a massive flood of disguised-source cancelsfrom the so-called "cancel-bunny" [because it just kept reproducing more and more of them]. Eventually a bunch of amateur "rabbit hunters" tracked the menace to an account at, which was shut down.

(c) Variously at key times since, there have been floods of up to 10,000 jamming articles per day known as the "ArsBomb" flooding attempt . Formats have included the so called "sporgery" [spam-forgery] in which headers from a regular contributor are combined with the body of an offensive article e.g. from a white-power newsgroup and then spammed onto ars. Later efforts included hundreds of separate short paragraphs from Hubbard writings each posted multiple times, and output of a nonsense generator such as HipCrime which produces articles full of "zzzbfw glwflp nrk" etc. This moved through a series of disposable accounts bought for cash. However, it was effectively tracked to a particular address and stopped.

How We Fought Back

07. Introduction. Over the period there has built up as well as the newsgroup and the IRC channel #ScientologyLIES a community of about 100 web-sites [mostly rented sites rather than sysops], together with mailing-lists for announcing new material or asking queries and an IRC. As well as aggrieved ex-members, the Cof$' attacks dragged in a large number of sys-ops, spam-busters, and other net savvy people connected with to remove any article quoting the materials or the URL for them. After great efforts a bunch of amateur abuse-busters; plus many others who are just free- speech activists on the Net who were active in Campaign Against Censorship, Amnesty International, etc, before the Net arrived. These brought with them useful resources for fighting any further technical and legal attacks.

Routine threats to web-pages occur every 2 or 3 months. Cof$ clearly feels this is a war of attrition where they can constantly pick off the few weakest links and hope the group as a whole will slowly lose numbers or interest. There is no formal watching or mirroring system, because we are mostly not sys-ops. However, attacked areas manage to get rapidly reported and mirrored somewhere by the usual "organised anarchy" of the Net.

08. Against in depth legal attacks. The main area have been Cof$ mis-using copyright to enforce secrecy, and counterattacks by suing Cof$ for character assassination campaigns: the latter only succeeded (i) for a major state official, or (ii) with massive pro bono legal backing. The Cof$ philosophy here appears to be that "the purpose of a lawsuit is not to win but to harass and bankrupt" [cited here]; that by applying massive force they can crush the isolated opponent and their problem will vanish. Sometimes they are happy to crush by harassment an opponent who has sued them then give him a money settlement to shut up and go away. Generally the small individual has little chnace of actually getting a fair verdict... certainly in America, though the British and Dutch courts are much more loath to enforce secrecy via copyright on Cof$ material. Two cases, Woods + Erlich , have been helped by major civil rights groups. What Cof$ have not allowed for... is defendants like the MacLibel two, who become in Erlich's phrase, a "tar baby" [the reference is to Aesop as reinterpreted in Brer Rabbit]; i.e. they devote immense amounts of time to learning law and fighting back, then simply go bankrupt and don't care about any supposed money penalty. This is a Pyrrhic victory for the attacker, bringing immense bad publicity... and, in Internet terms, recruiting a thousand new supports for each one they try to silence. Internet media have been immensely useful for tracing motions by each side at every stage, discussion of tactics by email, and mainstream legal press picking up where this or that judge has been clearly unfair in bending over backwards to take the large corporate side.

09. Against in depth technical attacks. The biggest cancel or flood attacks seem to be on those who themselves either cancel spam or track other kinds of abuse; second to them, and because there is a large cross-over, is ARS. Cancel attacks have been watched for by the Lazarus 'bot running on a server in Germany, which gives a digest of cancels for the group. Flooding attacks require spam-cancelling Bots to clean them out. What gets through can be dealt with by circulating shared kill-files for the NFILTER local host program or similar. Sources of both get hunted down by the usual abuse tracking methods. This type of censorship/blocking attack may have some success by attrition i.e. it puts off technically weaker among the passing readers or occasional contributors. However the worst floods have been handled with only a 25-30% drop in real traffic. Such methods will never cause total blocking i.e. the important news will get through, to those it is important should hear it, virtually whatever blocking is tried. Also, such provocations tend to attract many new supporters.

10. Other Fightbacks. Such a long-term multi-mode struggle, even more spread out than McLibel which was largely one court-case in one country, cannot forget two other strands. The first is to take direct action by picketing, phoning in, etc, even if there are only a few of you in each location: it is remarkable how freaked large authoritarian groups are by the thought their use of coercion against others could come back on them directly and at their prestige sites. The second is the importance of edited mainstream media. To the extent anyone can say anything on the Net and many do the value is diluted: its real importance is that tiny 0.1% of stories that matter when these reach into more selective and influential media, where they may well have gone unnoticed without it.

What Was Achieved

11. Results so far. Cof$ has not managed to have the newsgroup removed or rendered inoperable. A few particular web-sites or parts thereof have moved or shut down, but almost all were mirrored first. The material it sought to keep secret is widely available. The movement against them is bigger than ever. People, especially in America, are much more aware and contemptuous of Cof$. Cof$ used to maintain an atmosphere of fear, now nobody is afraid to openly criticise and, worse, laugh at them. The organisation is slowly losing members, though it still survives on stored plunder. As yet nobody seems able to strike the decisive blow which will get it closed down -- critics just want the fraud and haras-sment stopped but it seems reform is unlikely so closure it must be -- so it seems set for a long slow slide of decline.

Lessons For The Future

12. Lessons. Where a small tyrannical group wants to push around a large crowd of people two things weigh in their favour: that the people accept the status quo and have little cohesion or willingness to act, but that they have very great cohesive discipline and willingness to use coercion, by lies or blows, to an extreme degree -- they must, if challenged, to compensate for their inferior numbers -- their greatest victory is if the situation is rigged to go their way and it would take an immense amount of effort on things people don't normally control to change that. If they issue a command to which people can and do severally say 'no', then they are in a difficult position. They will use extreme force of punches or lawsuits to get a few individual defiers, who have almost no individual chance of prevailing. This is like an elephant stomping on army ants one by one: it takes a lot of effort to stomp one ant. In the end, the ants will eat it. Netizens have also adopted a tactic of African ants and bees, that the scent of each new victim being crushed mobilises a thousand new supporters to sting the attacker which crushed it. In more specific sense, the anti-scientology struggle grows and adopts new technical means. There are for example CDs of the web-pages and the newsgroup archive; there are search engines emerging for the whole collection of pages. To the extent it is not stopped each time, it grows bolder and more proficient in new techniques.

December 2000.

Euro-IR Project Main Index