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Internet is battleground in foes' war of information

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 1999


Around the clock, from Norway, the Netherlands, Australia and every corner of the United States, the critics of Scientology discuss the controversial organization and its practices.

A court decision in Sweden is quickly posted to the news group, followed quickly by a full translation. Daily transcripts of a trial in Northern California are up before daybreak the next day, and news accounts from all over the world are quickly translated and reproduced.

Many of those who post messages to the central anti-Scientology news group, alt.religion.scientology, have their own critical Web sites with much more on Scientology. The best known of the critical Web sites is Operation Clambake (http://www.xenu.net), a massive library of information on Scientology operated by Andreas Heldal-Lund, a Norwegian critic who has operated his Web site despite dozens of letters threatening legal action by Scientology.

Heldal Lund says he keeps secret Scientology documents available on request by offering to send them via e-mail to anyone who wants them.

Operation Clambake insults Scientology by its very name, which refers to a passage in The History of Man, a book written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He suggested that the bad experiences which trouble people date back to a time when clams lay on the seashore filled with anxiety over the next wave.

Scientology lawyers repeatedly threaten critics who operate Web sites and post items to the news group, and have filed lawsuits against several. Companies that provide Internet services are constantly under attack from Scientology lawyers who threaten lawsuits if they don't toss critical Web pages off the Internet.

"The Internet is Scientology's Vietnam," says Mark Plummer, a former Scientologist who signs his name as "Warrior."

Scientology once attempted to get the news group tossed off the Net but failed. It's obvious the organization closely monitors the news group because it is constantly turning up in courtrooms with copies of messages that have been posted.

Scientology has also created its own Web pages and distributed software to members so they can create their own. But the software has a "Net nanny," a filter that blocks the Scientologists' access to critics' pages.

Scientologist Mike Rinder says the Net filter is an idea Scientology took from a Jewish group that uses a similar screen to filter out objectionable material.

Some Scientologists also post messages to the group and sometimes engage in a bitter war of name calling. Critics also blame Scientology for a blizzard of what computer experts call "spam," unwanted messages that flood the news group and make it almost impossible to extract real messages.

Rinder said Scientology is not responsible for the spam.

To help sort out the news group, Rod Keller, a Philadelphia critic, writes a weekly review of items posted to the news group and e-mails it to anyone interested (rkeller@voicenet.com).

Contributors to the news group react quickly when one of their number is threatened. On the day Keith Henson, a Northern California computer consultant, was ordered to pay $75,000 to Scientology for violating copyright laws, dozens of critics posted the very document involved in his trial on Web sites all over the world. That copyright document offers instructions for handling physical illnesses, which Henson and other critics compare to practicing medicine without a license.

Virtually all of Scientology's secrets and hundreds of personal "survivor" stories have been posted to the news group since it was formed in 1991.

Scientology officials say they don't mind being criticized but do watch out for violations of the church's copyrights.

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