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Fair Game: An online onslaught against Scientology

Title: Fair Game: An online onslaught against Scientology
Date: Thursday, 31 January 2008
Publisher: Economist
Main source:

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Watch out, there's an alien about

An online onslaught against Scientology

A VICIOUS cult run by cynical fraudsters, or a sincerely held religious belief persecuted by zealots? That is the long-standing row about Scientology, founded by the late science-fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard. In some countries, such as Germany, the group is watched by the security services. In others, such as America and Australia, it has won charitable status as a religion.

Until now the fight could mostly be seen as one-sided. Scientology's lawyers are vigorous litigants. The group argues that its internal materials (which claim, among other things, that expensive courses of treatment can help rid people of infestation by alien souls from an extinct civilisation) are commercially confidential and protected by copyright. They react sharply to any perceived libel.

As a result, public critics of what they derisively term "$cientology" risk expensive legal battles. For example, a new unauthorised biography of Tom Cruise by a British author, Andrew Morton, contains detailed and highly critical material about the film star's involvement in Scientology. It is a bestseller in America but has not been published in Britain. The publisher, St Martin's Press, has even asked internet booksellers not to ship it to foreign customers. Though Scientology representatives vehemently deny breaking any laws, critics have claimed that they experience intensive harassment and intimidation.

Now Scientology is under attack from a group of internet activists known only as Anonymous. Organised from a Wikipedia-style website (editable by anyone) and through anonymous internet chat rooms, "Project Chanology", as the initiative is known, presents no easy target for Scientology's lawyers. It is promoting cyberwarfare techniques normally associated with extortionists, spies and terrorists. Called "distributed denial of service attacks", these typically involve using networks of infected computers to bombard the target's websites and servers with bogus requests for data, causing them to crash. Even governments find this troublesome.

Anonymous is also hoping to galvanise public opinion with a mass "real-world" protest outside every Scientology office worldwide on February 10th. But its best weapon may be ridicule. The group got going in reaction to efforts to ban an internal Scientology video of Mr Cruise that leaked onto the internet. The star appears to discuss his beliefs with a degree of incoherence and exaggeration that might lead some to question Scientology's effects on its adherents' sanity. A Scientology spokesman says it has been selectively edited. Several internet sites have taken it down after threats of lawsuits. But it keeps popping up.

Copyright 2008 Economist Newspaper Ltd.