Postcard from cyberspace; Religious Fracas Debunks Myth of Anarchy
on Net; Cutting Edge: Electronic war of words between
Scientologists and critics shows Internet governance in action.
Los Angeles Times
by Daniel Akst
Wednesday January 25, 1995
Much of cyberspace is fractious, but it's hard to imagine anyplace
more polarized than alt.religion.scientology, an Internet newsgroup
divided into a pair of flame-throwing camps dedicated to
demolishing one another's arguments about the Los Angeles-based
Church of Scientology. Now, though, the battle has gone far beyond
flaming. Someone--it's not clear who--has forged messages that have
the effect of canceling some postings critical of the church, in
effect censoring an Internet forum, or electronic discussion group.
On the Internet, this is serious stuff indeed, but it gets even
more dramatic. A Church of Scientology lawyer actually tried to
nuke alt.religion.scientology altogether, sending out what is known
to the cognoscenti as a "rmgroup message" that would have
eradicated the newsgroup from the great river called Usenet that
flows at all times across the Internet.
The fracas now even includes an Internet petition drive urging the
Church of Scientology to stop trying to censor its critics. The
church, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing and calls itself the
victim of a smear campaign and copyright violations.
Controversy is nothing new for Scientology, and free-speech
disputes are nothing new in cyberspace. But what's most interesting
about the attack on alt.religion.scientology is the insight it
offers into how the Internet is (you should pardon the expression)
governed. For the Net is not the anarchy it seems.
Nobody runs it, of course, but system administrators all over the
place function as its stewards, and their perspective is a product
both of the networking culture (a weird blend of individualism and
communality) and the America in which most of them grew up.
It's really a very American institution, the Internet--democratic
but not without property rights. Most of the rules are based on the
idea that people should be left to do what they want as long as
they don't abuse the commons. Thus, it appears that hardly any
sites have stopped carrying alt.religion.scientology. (In general,
rmgroup messages require human approval to take effect, or at the
very least must announce their arrival to system administrators,
who can then undo them.) Besides, if alt.religion.scientology had
been destroyed, Netsters would have posted the same stuff elsewhere
in cyberspace, just as they circumvented a Canadian ban on reports
of a celebrated murder trial by posting details all over the place,
until the Mounties--that's right, picture them there at the border,
on horseback--finally gave up.
Church of Scientology lawyer Helena Kobrin has proved tenacious. In
addition to trying to cancel the newsgroup, she tried to stop the
alt.religion.scientology postings of Dennis Erlich, a former church
member-turned-dissident, by demanding that the Los Angeles Valley
College bulletin board system cancel his account.
Tom Klemesrud, who operates the North Hollywood BBS independently
of the college, refused without proof of Kobrin's claim that the
account was being used to post copyrighted church materials. Erlich
denies doing anything illegal.
Klemesrud is no stranger to Scientology: He has long been involved
with dissidents from the group and admits to having passed
information about the church to the FBI and IRS at times.
Kobrin asserts that alt.religion.scientology "has been used by a
few unprincipled lawbreakers" to post "re-created versions of
sacred religious scriptures which are protected by both copyright
and trade secret law." She said the church will continue to defend
its rights vigorously.
To fully understand why the Scientology fracas has created an
uproar on the Internet, consider the way newsgroups are born.
Establishing groups in such mainstream categories as "soc." and
"sci." requires a process that includes a vote, but even
responsible progenitors of "alt." groups, which are relatively easy
to create, will gauge Net feeling before going ahead. If they
didn't, system operators might not carry the group.
The point is, you can't just decide to kill a widely accepted
newsgroup simply because you don't like what people say there.
Well-meaning Net vigilantes have in the past taken it upon
themselves to cancel Usenet "Spam," commercial messages posted to
a large number of inappropriate newsgroups.
Such cancelings added to the furor surrounding the widely
publicized Canter & Siegel episode, in which a pair of Phoenix
lawyers flooded the Internet with messages promoting their
services. Some Internet users, incensed at this misappropriation of
the commons, took the liberty of canceling Canter & Siegel
postings, which requires a certain amount of skill, since normally
a user can only cancel his own postings.
Rmgroup messages, which can result in rmgroup wars--one side
removing a group, the other re-creating it just as fast--also
require some skill. But to many on the Internet, Kobrin's rmgroup
message was too much, and Internet activist Jon Noring was moved to
action. Noring, who had previously organized e-mail petitions to
get Intel to replace its flawed Pentium chips, this time posted a
petition to alt.religion.scientology urging the church to stop
censoring its critics. The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation
has also entered the fray, posting a statement Monday urging the
church "not to take actions designed to cut off the free flow of
information through the Net."
An irony here is that, according to Klemesrud, his system is used
by many active Scientologists as well as Scientology opponents,
though he acknowledges that he is probably no favorite of the
church. And yes, he remains adamant about not canceling dissident
Daniel Akst, a Los Angeles writer, is a former assistant business
editor for technology at The Times. He welcomes messages at
firstname.lastname@example.org but regrets that he cannot reply to each and