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Freedom Flames Out on the 'Net

Title: Freedom Flames Out on the 'Net
Date: Thursday, 4 July 1996
Publisher: NOW Magazine
Author: Colman Jones
Main source:
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Ron Newman, a corporate Web page designer in Cambridge, Massachussetts, turns on his computer one day last month and signs on to the Net to check in on his favourite newsgroup, alt.religion.scientology, a.r.s. for short.

But as his computer modem erupts into the now all-too-familiar squeal that marks the arrival online, Newman begins to sense that something's not quite right. Ordinarily, it takes only a few seconds to retrieve the day's new postings on this electronic bulletin board.

Today there are more messages than usual — a lot more. Newman grows increasingly edgy. His hard drive starts to fill up with an ever-increasing mountain of data, most of it canned reprints from a leading Scientology text.

What he and hundreds of others logging onto the group are experiencing is a "spam," in which someone posts dozens or even hundreds of messages to the same newsgroup, or the same message to different newsgroups. But this is no ordinary spam. Little does he realize it at the time, but Newman has just witnessed the start of what some are calling the biggest traffic jam in the history of the Net.

For weeks afterwards, this popular computer bulletin board is swamped daily by a mountain of pro-Scientology articles (nearly 28,000 at last count), posted by automatic computer programs in an apparent attempt to drown out criticism of the church.

Newman and other critics of Scientology suspect the culprit is the church itself. For their part, representatives of the church say they have no idea who's behind it, but they certainly don't appear to object to what's going on.

Harrowing episode

Whoever is responsible, this harrowing episode in online harassment — the most extreme example of Net abuse to date — serves as a reminder that state intrusion is only one kind of threat to cyberspace. An increasing amount of cybermeddling is now being perpetrated by vigilante-style citizen groups who, quite outside the jurisdiction of any law, take matters into their own hands through spamming and mass e-mail attacks.

And the implications are startling. Besides the technological curtailment of free speech, a skirmish like this one has the potential to completely disrupt the online operation not only of individual users, but also of entire networks overloaded by traffic their circuits were never designed to handle.

"It is a misuse of a common resource," says Newman, who has assembled what is probably the most comprehensive Web site documenting the church's online activities. Scientology supporters, he says, have gone too far this time.


Perhaps it's no accident that the Net's most atrocious spamming incident deleted discussion of an organization claiming a membership of 8 million.

The Church of Scientology (CoS), a well known New Age religion founded in the early 1950s, is based on the philosophy of the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

The organization has been haunted by accusations from ex-members who claim that church officials subvert the independence of members through techniques of humiliation, starvation, imprisonment and worse. The church denies all such allegations.

Discussions of these issues were standard fare on the newsgroup that faced its first major spamming on May 19, when the regular participants on a.r.s. were joined by a new visitor, "Chris Maple" (chrismpl, who posted a few excerpts from the CoS's What Is Scientology? handbook to the newsgroup.

It wasn't many at first, but within a few days the smattering of messages grew to unbelievable proportions, as hundreds, then thousands of similar messages started pouring in. The messages were originally sent by e-mail and then forwarded to the newsgroup through a computer at Yale University.

Once Yale officials discovered the spam, they blocked postings from the Chris Maple address.

Great lines

But soon other spammers began to appear, posting the same or similar material, one usually starting up within a few minutes of another ending. Text from prior messages was often quoted in full, followed only with a single line, such as "Great!"

With thousands of repeated messages posted each day, this spam attack soon mushroomed out of control, with an estimated 20,000 messages — or over 50 megabytes of data, the equivalent of 3,000 NOW news features — posted over nine days. On May 24, Yale restricted posting to a.r.s. altogether.

The spammers soon found other ways to infiltrate the group, sending signals to computers as far away as New Zealand and Estonia. It soon became obvious that these were not just idle posts of cult propaganda, but an all-out assault on the newsgroup itself, with thousands of copies of identical messages being sent to millions of computers around the world.

The problem with the a.r.s. activity, Newman says, is "solely the volume, not the content. When you dump in several thousand messages a day, it's like jamming a radio station. It disrupts at several levels — people who are reading the group, as well as the middlemen, i.e. everybody in between the sender and receiver, who is storing and forwarding the news, because it takes up their disk space and bandwidth."

Indeed, small providers with limited computer disk space for newsgroups have been straining to cope with the extra load, which obviously takes a lot more time to download. And individual users whose dial-ups charge by the hour or by the byte literally have to pay more to access a.r.s., and some with slow connections are finding it has now become too expensive to read the newsgroup.

But tracking down the a.r.s. spammers has been tricky because they never remain in one place for long enough to trace them. Pro-Scientology postings appear to be originating from forged or bogus e-mail addresses, with spammers changing their Internet service providers frequently, at times using anonymous remailers.

Despite the lack of a smoking gun, critics suspect church members are ultimately behind this massive outpouring of Hubbard's writings. E-mail leaked by former Scientologists indicates members and supporters looked upon spamming as a propaganda tool as much as two years ago.

A leaked 1994 document, written by then high-ranking Scientologist Elaine Siegel, appears to support the suggestion that Scientology had an official project to "handle" the newsgroup.

Seigel, a member of the church's office of special affairs, wrote, "If you imagine 40 to 50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we'll just run the SP's (Suppressive Persons, i.e. enemies of Scientology) right off the system. It will be quite simple, actually."

Church spokesperson Debbie Blair acknowledges that Siegel wrote the memo as an official communication to fellow Scientologists, but Blair insists the plan was never church policy.

"It was never adopted, never implemented and never a plan of anyone other than maybe Elaine Siegel."

Asked whether she thinks the postings of tens of thousands of pro-Scientology messages is an abuse of the Net, Blair replies, "I guess I'd have to say no, but I really need to qualify that. Anything that is stifling free speech would be an abuse of the Net."

When I ask Blair whether church members are behind the spam, she says she has no idea. "There are 8 million Scientologists," she tells me, repeating an oft-quoted — but unverified — figure. Asked about the church's position on the tactic, she says, "That spamming didn't just start. When it was critical of us, against the church, no one cared. When there's a volume of positive things, then people complain."

Similarly, a CoS statement Blair faxed to NOW defends members' rights to free cyber-speech, while denying any organized effort to swamp the Internet.

"It's only a few hypocrites that would complain," it says. "When they express themselves... no matter how vile or hateful their postings are, we acknowledge their right to say what they want.... There has been so much false information on (the newsgroup) that no one should complain about the truth being posted."

When asked about the church's unsuccessful attempt to shut the newsgroup down by persuading system administrators not to carry it, she says, "That's true. That was a mistake we made at the beginning. We've grown a lot since then. We're not Microsoft. We're a church."

Perhaps the most interesting thing to be said about the church's involvement stems from its failure to take legal action over the potential violation of intellectual property rights in the course of this spamming, rights it has vigorously pursued in the past.

Sacred writings

The church has always maintained that certain sacred writings by Hubbard — writings that form the spiritual and economic backbone of the religion — are trade secrets. The church has waged a long campaign over the years to protect these secret texts, launching a series of intellectual property suits as a result of copyrighted material being posted on the Net. Most of this activity has taken place on the a.r.s. newsgroup, where, late in 1994, a series of cancel commands were forged by persons unknown, commands that made postings disappear from a.r.s., sometimes accompanied by the statement "canceled because of copyright infringement."

CoS has taken legal action against a variety of individuals and organizations for publishing the secret tracts without authorization, including the Washington Post, a variety of "apostate infringers" from a.r.s. and several Internet service providers.

It even forced an anonymous remailing service (a third-party company that hid the originator's address before relaying messages) in Finland to come up with the name of a user posting secret texts on a.r.s. The thousands of recent posts on a.r.s. consist of materials copyrighted by the CoS, yet Church lawyers have yet to launch court proceedings.

Blair would not say whether the person or persons posting the spam received permission from CoS to post the copyrighted sections, but insists "There's always concern about copyright infringement." But when I specifically ask Blair if the church is taking action against the current spammers, she simply reiterates, "When there's copyright infringement — regardless of who is doing it — we always take action. It does not mean we always go to lawsuits."

Oddly enough, the episode has divided free speech advocates, who are finding themselves at opposite sides of the fence on this issue. Some see the spam as a threat to free speech, while others maintain that CoS is simply stating its views just a bit more aggressively than its detractors right now.

Muzzling dissent

Using spam to muzzle dissent on the Net is not limited to a.r.s., notes Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, an independent, not-for-profit research centre that monitors the organizations, individuals and activities of the U.S. political right, including on the Net.

Berlet helped set up the first Fight The Right bulletin board system in 1985. He currently operates his own private electronic mailing list, one he had to shut down temporarily after subscribers' mailboxes began filling up with hundreds of messages from far-right zealots.

Berlet notes that using a massive onslaught of data to counter one's enemies is used by groups all across the political spectrum, with angry gay activists spamming Christian fundamentalists, and antiracists mail-bombing neo-Nazis. He notes this new form of technology "dramatically increases the ability of people who have access to media. You want to protect that and guarantee that access, but you also want to come up with some sanctions against people who in fact abuse it."

There are currently no laws prohibiting spamming, Berlet notes, but "There is a free speech violation when something is spammed out of existence," he says.

Berlet doesn't think there's much difficulty in defining exactly what constitutes spam, and how that can be distinguished from legitimate mass expressions.

"If what you have is a spontaneous outpouring of messages — or even an organized one, as part of a lobbying campaign — from many different people, that's one thing. But the a.r.s. spammers are posting mountains of garbage of L. Ron Hubbard's writing, wads of text that are not germane to the discussion at hand — that's the difference."