Postcard from cyberspace; Religious Fracas Debunks Myth of Anarchy on Net; Cutting Edge: E

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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 Erlich's account. Daniel Akst, a Los Angeles writer, is a former assistant business editor for technology at The Times. He welcomes messages at akstd@news.latimes.com but regrets that he cannot reply to each and every one. -------------------

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