Wired: Issue 3.12, Dec 1995


Gold Meritorious Patron

When computers are seized because they contain allegedly stolen intellectual property, and police pierce the security anonymous remailers,the days of the Net as a cozy, cocktail party are over. Welcome to a flame war with real bullets.

By Wendy M. Grossman

When computers are seized because they contain allegedly stolen intellectual property, or the security of anonymous remailers is pierced by police, alt.scientology.war the days of the Internet as a cozy, private, intellectual cocktail party are over. Welcome to mortal combat between two alien cultures - a flame war with real bullets.

Saturday, August 12, 1995. The word goes out over the Net: a raid is in progress at the Arlington, Virginia, home of Arnaldo Lerma, Usenet poster and former Scientologist. The raiding party is said to consist of ten people: two federal marshals; two computer technicians, one of whom is former FBI agent and computer-security expert James Settle; and several attorneys from the Church of Scientology. One attorney is Helena Kobrin, known to many on the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology through her postings demanding the deletion of files which she claims contain copyrighted material. Another is Earle Cooley, a church lawyer who also chairs the board of Boston University. They are taking Lerma's computer, backups, disks, modem, and scanner. Although persistent and passionate about his anti-Scientology crusade, Lerma is distraught over the intrusion. Like many of us, Lerma keeps all his files, both business and personal, on his home computer.

The raiding party says he'll have his equipment back by Monday. Weeks later, he's still waiting.

Lerma is not the first. In February, similar raids were staged on Dennis Erlich in Glendale, California, and on anon.penet.fi, an anonymous remailer run by Johan Helsingius in Finland.

Then more - on Tuesday, August 22, 1995. This time it's two raids. The target is FactNet, an anticult electronic library and archive based in Golden, Colorado. One raid is on FactNet chair - and former Scientologist - Lawrence Wollersheim, the unpaid winner of a multimillion-dollar suit against the church. The other is on FactNet director Bob Penny. FactNet has been expecting a raid since early spring, and it long ago told Internet users to download as much of its archives as possible. There are now FactNet anti-Scientology kits on websites all over the world. With netters everywhere able to cut and paste them, transmit and download them, they become more and more difficult to track down. It would take a lot of international cooperation and a lot of police power to get them all.

On the Usenet newsgroup at the heart of all this, alt.religion.scientology, posters who've been critical of the religion are still worried. The church has filed suit against The Washington Post for quoting material the church considers proprietary; police have paid a visit to XS4ALL, a Dutch Internet service provider, to file for seizure of equipment (at issue is the service's anonymous remailer and the home page of a user who has posted Scientology materials); and rumor has it there'll be a raid on another netter any day now. The popular bet for the next round is critic Grady Ward in Arcata, California, who has told the group his 74-year-old mother was visited by a Scientology investigator. The masses on alt.religion.scientology have started a pool to guess how many people will hit Ward. Other users have reported mysterious incidents: investigators visiting their neighbors, strangers attempting to get into their telephone records, e-mail sent to their sysadmins asking that their accounts be closed down. How did we get to this, in a free country?

It turns out that a belief in free speech and an interest in Scientology may involve you in the bitterest battle fought across the Internet to date. The story of Scientology versus the Net is not a tale of friendly nethead-to-nethead hostilities like 1993's kittens-in-the-microwave flame war between alt.tasteless and rec.pets.cats. This is mortal combat between two alien cultures - two worlds whose common language masks the gulf between them. A flame war with real guns. A fight that has burst the banks of the Net and into the real world of police, lawyers, and armed search and seizure. Ultimately, however, the drama doesn't matter: the real issues here are the boundaries of free speech and the future of copyright and intellectual property in the face of a technology that can scatter copies across the world in seconds. The Church of Scientology will not be the last organization, controversial or otherwise, that seeks to protect its interests against the Net. Technology doesn't care about the motives of its users.

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Thank you for this! It is before my time as an ex and also a computer user so is very useful to me for filling in gaps. distance and perspective are wonderful things! :)