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The Church of Scientology vs. the Net

The Church of Scientology vs. the Net

This page created by Ron Newman. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by MIT.
Last revised June 25, 1995.

Quick index

The Church of Scientology is a religious cult which has unwisely decided to declare war against the Usenet and Internet communities. Since December of 1994, this Church and its followers have committed the following acts:

Tried to censor a Usenet discussion group

Members or allies of the Church have tried to remove messages written by other people in the Usenet discussion group alt.religion.scientology. They did this by sending unauthorized cancel messages, which are specially-formatted messages instructing Usenet servers to delete a previously posted message. Here's an example of such a cancel message, and here's another. Some of these cancels were accompanied by text claiming that the original message contained violations of the Church's copyrights and trade secrets. But copyright disputes should be settled in a court of law, not by faceless vigilantes issuing cancel messages.

The first such cancels started around Christmas of 1994, and were sent by harryj@netcom.com (Harry Jones), who did not understand his news-posting software well enough to conceal his true identity. He eventually got smarter, and later cancels came from the non-existent account robocanceller@netcom.com. The cancels quickly attracted the attention of Time magazine's Netwatch column, which mentioned them in the January 16, 1995 issue. After weeks of complaints, Netcom's system administrators finally installed software that forced anyone sending a cancel to reveal their true identity (or, at least, their Netcom user ID). Subsequent cancels then came from: mako@netcom.com (Michael Clark), student@netcom.com (John Palmer), and bettyj@netcom.com (Elizabeth Jones). Netcom soon disabled logins from all of these accounts.

Soon afterwards, two more cancels originated from the site deltanet.com, and claimed to come from the address noman@odesi.com. Don't try to send e-mail there; it's a non-existent site. But the good news is that, on March 6, the good folks at deltanet.com found and terminated the accounts of two users who issued forged cancels from their site. Here's a report from deltanet's system administrator..

I thought we'd seen the last of the Cancelbunny, but it came back once again on March 30, this time from the UK. Here's a fairly recent cancel, dated April 7. The system administrator of demon.co.uk has informed me that the cancel appeared to originate at another UK site, pipex.net. That site, in turn, apparently received it from a site in Ireland, possibly an open-access NNTP port. The search continues...

If you are familiar with certain American television commercials, you'll understand why I dubbed this the "Cancelbunny": it just keeps going, and going, and going...

Tried to shut down a Usenet discussion group

On January 11, 1995, a lawyer for the Church, Helena Kobrin <hkk@netcom.com>, sent a rmgroup message, which is an instruction to Usenet servers to delete the entire discussion group alt.religion.scientology. This message claimed that the group's very name infringed on the Church's trademark, and again complained that members of the group were posting infingements of the Church's copyrights. The "rmgroup" had little effect, because most Usenet system administrators regard such messages as purely advisory, and several quickly sent newgroup messages to re-create the group on any server that had removed it.

Internet World magazine asked Helena Kobrin for an explanation, and got a long letter back from her. I wasn't terribly impressed, and sent her a reply. The magazine's article appeared in the April 1995 issue. A shorter article (by net.personality Joel Furr) appeared in the April 1995 issue of the UK magazine Internet and Comms Today. Also check out the article in the April 1995 issue of the UK's .net magazine.

Threatened the operators of anonymous remailing services

On January 4, 1995, Church attorney Thomas Small sent this e-mail to the operators of several anonymous remailing services, demanding that they disallow anonymous posting to alt.religion.scientology.

In response to both the rmgroup and this letter, Jon Noring <noring@netcom.com> circulated a Net Petition asking that the Church cease its attacks on the Net. At the same time, the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a statement urging the Church to stop threatening Internet system administrators with litigation. Daniel Akst wrote a "Postcard from Cyberspace" column in the January 25 Los Angeles Times, and Richard Leiby wrote a "CyberSurfing" column in the February 2 Washington Post.

Update, April 4, 1995: Helena's at it again! This time she's made three threatening phone calls to remailer operator Homer Smith.

Compromised the security of anon.penet.fi, an anonymous remailer in Finland

In early February, 1995, Church representatives somehow used Interpol and the Finnish police to demand the True Name of a user of anon.penet.fi, an anonymous remailer in Finland. Julf Helsingius, the administrator of anon.penet.fi, announced this in a Usenet message to many newsgroups on February 18, 1995. He followed this with a press release on February 21. The Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat covered the story on February 18; this was soon followed by the Associated Press, Time magazine, and another "Postcard from Cyberspace" column from Dan Akst in the February 22 Los Angeles Times.

Sued a user, his BBS, and his Internet service provider
Invaded the user's home, seizing and deleting files

On February 8, 1995, two Church corporations filed a lawsuit and a request for a restraining order against Dennis Erlich of Glendale, California, alleging that he was posting the Church's "copyrighted trade secrets". They also sued the bulletin board he was using, support.com, and the bulletin board's Internet service provider, Netcom. Two days later, they received a temporary restraining order against the three defendants, as well as a writ of seizure allowing them to search Erlich's home and seize computer files.

Erlich did not know about any of this until 7:30 in the morning of Monday, February 13, when Church attorney Thomas Small and seven other people demanded entry to his home. According to Erlich, they spent over six hours copying and deleting files from his computer system. A Glendale police officer was present at the beginning and end of the raid, but not at any other time.

Dennis posted a first-person account of the raid to Usenet that night. The following day, both the Glendale News-Press and the Los Angeles Times reported on the raid. Church lawyer Helena Kobrin (remember her?) posted her version of the story to Usenet as well. (This link also includes two responses from David Sternlight and Jon Noring.) In addition, the Glendale News-Press published an editorial supporting free expression on the Internet on February 21, which drew a reply from a Church spokeswoman in the same newspaper three days later. Toronto's ultra-net-savvy weekly newspaper eye published a good article in their February 23 issue.

A court hearing was held on Tuesday, Febrauary 21 in San Jose Federal District Court. Dennis made a statement to the court. Tom Klemesrud, the owner and operator of support.com, also made a statement. Netcom's vice-president of software engineering, Rich Francis, filed a statement as well, as did Netcom's lawyers. At this hearing, the judge lifted the restraining orders against support.com and Netcom, and modified the restraining order against Dennis.

I won't go into the details of the hearing on this page; instead, read the official court transcript, or the first-person accounts by Shelley Thomson, Alan Hacker, and Carl Kaun, as well as the February 22 newspaper articles in the Glendale News-Press, Los Angeles Times, and San Jose Mercury News. The Church also issued a post-hearing press release.

After the hearing, the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a February 23 edition of its newsletter EFFector Online, containing a substantial addition to its original statement about the Church's threats to the Net.

On February 27, Helena Kobrin wrote a letter to Judge Whyte claiming that Dennis Erlich had violated the amended restraining order the previous day. Erlich sent an apology to the Judge that same day, explaining that he had not yet received the amended restraining order before allegedly violating it. (Apparently it was delivered to the wrong address.) That was not good enough for the Church lawyers, who promptly filed two more motions, one seeking a contempt-of-court citation against Erlich, the other requesting an injunction against Netcom and support.com.

In support of this request, the Church submitted declarations by church lawyers Helena Kobrin and Andrew Wilson, an unidentified person named Lynn Farny, and three computer specialists: Internet service provider David Elrod, digital image processing expert Kenneth Castleman, and UCLA computer science professor Alfonso Cardenas. The Church also filed an amended complaint with the court on March 3rd.

The San Francisco Chronicle belatedly covered the story on March 2nd, as did the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 1st. The Glendale News-Press published yet another article on March 3rd, and the UK weekly trade magazine Computing published a brief article in the March 9th edition. Meanwhile, the Net's own Shelley Thomson devoted the second issue of her new net-'zine, Biased Journalism, to the Erlich case.

Dennis Erlich now has legal representation, from the San Francisco law firm of Morrison and Foerester ("MoFo"). Because of their good work, Judge Whyte cancelled a March 17 hearing which was to hear a motion to hold Dennis in contempt of court. Instead, the judge issued an order delaying all pending hearings until further notice. (Dennis reported this news to Usenet in two messages on March 15 and March 16.)

A second court hearing was held on Friday, June 23 at 2 pm at the San Jose Federal Courthouse. This hearing considered a number of motions from all parties in the dispute, including Helena's motion to hold Dennis in contempt, Helena's motion for an injunction against all three defendants, and Tom and Netcom's motion to dismiss them from the case. Dennis described the motions in this "preview", written a few days before the hearing. Brian Harmon attended the hearing and wrote this description of what he saw. (Dennis later sent several replies, which I've intercut into Brian's text.) The San Francisco Chronicle also covered the story in its June 24 edition. The trial (by jury) date is set for early 1996.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has established the Dennis Erlich Defense Fund for people who want to help Dennis cover the "hard costs" of his legal defense. Follow this link for more information. Update, June 8: You may now contribute to the Fund by bank wire transfer!

Dennis's ex-wife Rosa continues to harass him with claims that he owes $40,000 in child-support payments. Dennis claims that he's been denied the right to visit the child. Here's a link to Dennis's latest postings on this subject.

Dennis suspects that the Scientologists may have "bought" Dennis's alleged debt from Rosa in order to collect it.

A member of the Church's Office of Special Affairs, Andrew Milne, posted a message claiming that a Scientologist named Robert Lippman "has obtained a restraining order against Dennis Erlich over Erlich's threat to kill him at the 1992 Cult Awareness Network conference." Erlich says he's never been served with any such order and has never met or heard of Lippman.

The British Broadcasting Corporation covered the Erlich case in its first edition of "the Net" TV show on May 15, 1995. They've put a transcript of the show on the Web.

Dennis continues to experience petty harassment of various kinds, as reported in this message of June 3.

Follow this link for an index of all legal papers that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has received electronic copies of.

Legal and extra-legal threats against netizens

The Church of Scientology's lovely lawyer, Helena Kobrin, has sent intimidating electronic mail to a number of netizens, including Martin Hunt, Nico Garcia, Grady Ward, and Daniel Davidson. Grady wrote a strongly-worded reply to Helena's bullying letter.

Daniel Davidson is a student at San Francisco State University in California. Because of Helena's complaint, SFSU's director of computing services, John True, filed a disciplinary charge against Davidson. Davidson was required to appear at a disciplinary hearing on Friday, March 31. He explained his predicament in a series of Usenet messages. Fortunately, Davidson was exonerated of all charges. This was partly due to the good work of Netizens throughout the world, who sent numerous e-mails and faxes to San Francisco State University officials explaining why Helena's groundless complaint should not be a cause for punitive action by the University. One of the best such letters was sent by Bruce Tober, a reporter for the UK magazine Internet and Comms Today.

Bob "Sloth" Bingham received an ominous e-mail note from a known Scientologist, informing him that his Web page had been "reported" to the Church's Office of Special Affairs (intelligence unit).

Not all the harassment has come from lawyers. The Church's private investigator, Eugene Ingram, visited Jeff Jacobsen, and also dropped in on Jeff's sister and his neighbor's 13-year-old son. Private investigators again lurked near Jeff's house on May 1st. Someone called the long distance phone companies of both Jeff Jacobsen and Homer Smith, impersonating each of them to try to obtain logs of their long-distance calls. A policeman visited Martin Hunt, asking about messages he allegedly posted to alt.religion.scientology.

Last November, Arnie Lerma received both an unnnounced visit and a threatening anonymous fax.

In Oklahoma, TarlaStar got a phone call from someone falsely claiming to represent her Internet Service Provider. A few days later, two Church of Scientology representatives posted her real first and last name, her address, her phone number, and her husband's name to alt.religion.scientology.

On April 15, two Scientologists paid Grady Ward an unannounced personal visit. This link contains both Grady's story and a counter-story from Scientologist "Chris Miller", who seems to have some kind of inside connection with Scientology's Office of Special Affairs.

On May 8, Grady's publisher received a threatening and slanderous phone call from a man identifying himself as Gene Ingram, who is a private investigator for the Church of Scientology. On May 10, a very inquisitive stranger, calling himself "Jack Hoff", visited Grady's 74-year-old mother in Tacoma, Washington.. Grady's mom later identified Mr. "Hoff" positively as Eugene Ingram, with help from this photo, taken by Jeff Jacobsen. As a result, the Tacoma Police Department has filed criminal case #95-1530374 against Ingram, on the charge of criminal impersonation.

Gary Reibert, who had only posted two messages to alt.religion.scientology, experienced a variety of disturbing events: his car was tailed, someone phoned him to do a survey in which "not participating is not an option", and somone else impersonated him in a phone call to his gas company, falsely reporting damage to his line.

Finally, someone claming to be both a Scientologist and an MIT alumnus sent this complaint to the MIT webmaster. (Unfortunately, a bug in MIT's comment gateway truncated the message.) The webmaster sent him this reply.

Jim Lippard has created a web page containing pictures of Eugene Ingram and other Scientology private investigators. The page also contains the details of the warrant for Ingram's arrest in Tampa, Florida, on charges of impersonating a police officer.

Will Scientology force FACTnet to shut down?

Scientology has also threatened the FACTnet bulletin-board system with numerous lawsuits, forcing them to remove their Web page. This BBS contains a huge library documenting the activities of Scientology and other religious cults. FACTnet may have to to shut down entirely in a few weeks, and they have issued a general appeal to netizens asking that you download their files free of charge while they are still available.

Update, April 21: FACTnet seems to be back on the air, sort of. Some anonymous person has created a "FACTnet Scientology WWW-Kit", which they are serving from http://xs4all.nl/~fonss. Another netizen has reorganized the FACTnet table of contents, which much improved readability: see http://power.stu.rpi.edu/newfact.html. You can download your own copy of the kit from http://xs4all.nl/~fonss/factkit.zip.

Update, May 11: FACTnet has put all of its text files, in .zip format, onto its FTP site, ftp://ftp.rmii.com/pub2/factnet/. These files were scheduled to disappear at the end of April, but seem to have been given a reprieve. Still, they could vanish at any time. Get them now!

It's been going on for years...off the Net

Internet users are finding out something that writers and journalists have known for years: the Church of Scientology doesn't take kindly to people who write negative things about it. They've sued and harassed numerous writers of books, such as biographer Russell Miller, who described his courtroom experience in a Punch magazine article in February 1988. More recently, they've picketed and distributed defamatory leaflets about writer Jon Atack, whose story is told in a 1994 Evening Argus article. Los Angeles Times writer Robert Welkos was followed by private investigators and received unsolicited hand-delivered ads from funeral homes; you can read a first-person account in his Quill magazine article.

For more information...

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Ron Newman <rnewman@mit.edu>

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