Wednesday 31 December 2008

12 Scientology v the Internet

In the mid-1990s Scientology tried to shut down its Internet-based critics using law suits and court-authorised raids. They have been paying the price ever since.

The Internet has been a nightmare for Scientology since at least the 1995, when the movement tried to shut down some of its more vocal critics there. Their mistake was to do it by getting court orders to raid their homes and confiscate their computer equipment.

The critics had been posting Scientology’s secret levels to expose what they said was the true nature of the movement. Scientology simply argued that it was protecting its copyrighted trade secrets from those it called the “copyright terrorists”.

Denis Erlich, a former Scientologist who was one of the movement’s most aggressive Internet critics, was the first to be targeted, on February 13, 1995. A video of the raid shows Erlich watching, horrified, as a posse of Scientology’s lawyers and representatives backed up by a police officer march around his California home.

“The scientologists went through my computer, all my papers, every closet, every drawer,” Erlich later told the judge handling the case.

Scientology lawyer Earl Cooley insisted in a statement released after another such raid: “The Church is a strong proponent of free speech. However, free speech does not mean free theft and no one has the right to cloak themselves in the First Amendment to break the law.”

In the U.S. courts, Scientology tended to win on the copyright issue: critics could not simply reproduce entire copies of the movement’s documents on the Internet.

But Scientology’s tactics sparked a backlash that confronted them with a new problem: how to deal with hundreds of libertarian-minded Internet activists outraged at what they saw as an unwarranted attack on free speech.

The movement has been paying the price ever since.

One of the new critics was Dutch writer Karin Spaink, who got involved after Scientology raided the Amsterdam office of Dutch Internet provider, XS4ALL, on September 5, 1995.

Spaink could not believe the Scientologists had behaved so unreasonably. “If you have an argument with someone you talk or you employ your lawyers, but you don’t raid,” she said.

By March 12, 1996, Spaink had won court approval from the Dutch courts to publish details of the very secrets that Scientology had been trying to keep from the public on her website.

The case went all the way to the Dutch Supreme Court, but Scientology never managed to put the genie back in the bottle.

Another critic who joined the battle was Norwegian Internet activist Andreas Heldal-Lund. He set up his website Operation Clambake on November 7, 1996 as a clearing house for the most important information concerning Scientology.

More than 10 years on, Operation Clambake remains one of the most popular websites on the subject.

For Heldal-Lund, the Internet has changed the balance of power. In the old days, Scientology could pick off individual critics using the vast resources at its disposal. Today however, all that has changed. “All the money in the world can't stop all the critics stirred into action by the information on the 'Net,” he writes on his website.

Neither Spaink nor Heldal-Lund knew much about Scientology before the movement started attacking its Web-based critics. Because of their commitment to free speech however, both ended up playing a key role in breaking the movement’s reputation as a formidable litigation machine.

These days, Scientology has its own network of glossily produced websites promoting its world view. But a disparate group of Internet activists maintains a network of websites that monitor, criticise and ridicule the movement’s every move.

Dedicated news groups and message boards have made it difficult for the movement to launch any kind of major initiative without triggering the ‘Net’s early warning system. And inevitably, the scoops that Internet-based researchers dig up eventually filter out into the mainstream media.

But perhaps the most significant recent development has come from a private corner of the Internet. In October 2004 former Scientologist Mick Wenlock set up a restricted-membership message board called XSO.

XSO stands for Ex-Sea Org: it is exclusively for former members of the Sea Organization, those true believers who signed a billion-contract, swearing to dedicate this life and future lives to Scientology.

Wenlock, an Englishman who now lives in the United States, said he set it up to get in touch with old friends from the movement. “I had no idea how powerful an emotion it would be to actually talk to a lot of XSO people. Some of us met up in Vegas in 2006 – only about 10 or so – and for three days I swear we could not shut up. It was great.”

Scientology’s current leader David Miscavige probably thinks that XSO is part of a conspiracy against the movement, said Wenlock. “But it is just a list of idealistic people who worked in the same organisation and who want to talk to old friends.

“Having said that – and just to brag a little perhaps – I knew that free and open communication was and is the biggest ‘threat’ to Miscavige and the current set-up. The control they have relies on stopping people talking, keeping them afraid to have opinions (other than enthusiastic approval). I am not at all surprised that things started to come out.”

What started to come out on XSO was evidence of just how harsh life in the movement can be. Members swapped horror stories about the kind of abuse they say had become the norm – at least inside some of Scientology’s flagship centres in the United States.

More specifically, a number of former senior Scientology executives have described in detail the increasingly violent behaviour of Miscavige himself.

It was not long before some of those stories began leaking out on to the wider Internet, such as the message board run by Heldal-Lund at Operation Clambake. Now, finally, they are beginning to get the attention of the mainstream media.

As one contributor put it, XSO is really Scientology’s worst nightmare. “We all have finally found a forum to reconnect and compare war stories and find out that we were not alone in our thinking about what was going on in the Sea Org – and that we can't all be wrong.”

Next: The Story so Far

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