How Scientology changed the internet
- 17 July 2013
- From the section Technology
What do Wikipedia, Wikileaks, Anonymous and copyright law have in common? The answer is they have all been influenced by the Church of Scientology International (CSI), as it took on ex-members and critics who took their protests on to the internet. As the Church successfully removes another website, just how big an influence has Scientology had on the internet we all use?
Last month digital rights activists at the influential Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) placed the Church of Scientology into their hall of shame over what it says were repeated acts against internet freedoms.
It was just the latest twist in the Church's long-running feud with "negative" Scientology content online, one that has lasted almost two decades.
Back in May 1994, at a time when most major organisations were yet to figure out how exactly to deal with the relatively unknown power of the internet, the Church's Elaine Siegel had a few ideas, outlined in a leaked email to "all Scientologists on the internet".
"I would like to ask your assistance in getting each one of you to post positive messages on the internet (at least once a week, more if you like), about Scientology," she wrote.
"If you imagine 40-50 Scientologists posting on the internet every few days, we'll just run the SP's [ex-members] right off the system.
"It will be quite simple, actually."
Or perhaps not.
Unsurprisingly, the Church of today is keen to distance itself from Ms Siegel's email.
"It is ancient history in terms of internet development," spokeswoman Karin Pouw told the BBC in a series of emails about the Church's relationship with the internet.
"The email in no way reflects or represents the Church's current relationships with IT professionals or our use of the internet to provide information about Scientology to anyone who seeks it."
She's right - the Church has moved on, instead seeking new ways to have "negative" content removed from the web.
"They're kind of innovators in finding ways to censor the internet," said Dr Martin Poulter from the University of Bristol.
Dr Poulter is a lead trainer for Wikimedia UK, the British arm of the non-profit organisation that looks after Wikipedia, and often edits its Scientology pages - something the Church is no longer able to do.
"Scientology was the first organisation to be officially banned from Wikipedia," he says, referring to the landmark decision in 2009.
"There were several different accounts making very similar contributions and advancing pro-Scientology lines, or deleting anti-Scientology stuff."
Dr Poulter's first experience with the Church's actions online came in the early 90s when he was browsing a newsgroup called alt.religion.scientology, a place where critics and ex-members were posting information on the Church.
"The reaction from the Church of Scientology was that it went really berserk," recalls Dr Poulter.
With the help of local authorities, houses belonging to newsgroup users across the US were raided, with computer equipment being seized for weeks on end.
"The days of the internet as a cosy, private, intellectual cocktail party are over," technology magazine Wired prophetically declared in 1995.
Scientology officials remember those early days with a slightly different perspective.
"The Church at that time had been a pioneer in religious website development," said Ms Pouw, but she admitted to the BBC that there had been concern about hate speech.
So much so, the Church took internet service providers such as Netcom to court over users who were posting copyrighted works online in order to attack Scientology.
Netcom retaliated, saying it could not be expected to screen everything its users were posting - a defence now frequently utilised by large sites like YouTube.
That row was one of several which led to the creation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a US law that gives copyright holders the power to ask for the removal of content to which they own the rights.
The DMCA is now widely used by the entertainment industry to have content removed from the internet.
For the Church, it was a tool that allowed them to go after ex-members and others who had posted "secret scriptures" online.
One such site, Operation Clambake, was a particular thorn. Set up by Andreas Heldal-Lund, the site not only hosted previously private Scientology documents but large amounts of criticism of the Church too. Because it had been set up in Norway, Xenu.net was beyond the DMCA's reach.
So the Church did the next best thing: it made a DMCA request to Google for the site to be wiped from search results. Google complied, sparking strong criticism.
Faced with the backlash, Google came to what founder Sergey Brin would later describe as the "right compromise", removing the listings, but replacing them with links to another website - chillingeffects.org - which lists the details of DMCA requests.
Meanwhile, anti-Scientologists linked to Xenu.net from their own sites, thus pushing it up Google's rankings until it appeared ahead of the Church's official site.
Former high-ranking Scientologist Geir Isene, who left the Church in 2009, told the BBC the Church was so concerned about this that it put pressure on Mr Brin at a conference in the hope he would alter search results to down-rank, or remove, anti-Scientology material.
The Church denies any discussions took place, while Google told the BBC it had no record of a meeting - but added that Mr Brin and other Google bosses would often meet webmasters and discuss matters relating to search at industry events.
The company strongly denies any suggestion it would have considered changing its search algorithms.
Mr Isene said his IT expertise was used by the Church to get under the skin of Mr Heldal-Lund, by posing online as a girl asking for advice after being brutalised by Jehovah's Witnesses.
Years later, when the Church asked Mr Isene how to combat their "Google problem" he told officials they could never pressure the company into change.
"They thought that was the most stupid thing Google could think - because obviously Scientology was going to save the world and Google was just a simple search engine."
When asked about the meeting, the Church of Scientology played down Mr Isene's contribution.
"He has joined a small group of former Scientologists who are trying to generate media stories about their former faith through exaggerated claims of their own importance," spokeswoman Ms Pouw said.
"He was one of many IT professionals we consulted at the time. Nothing more."
As the years progressed, Scientology's run-ins with the internet community would come thick and fast - mostly notably from the likes of Wikileaks, which in 2008 was still in "beta". It posted more scriptures, provoking the first significant legal challenge to the site's owner, Julian Assange. He ignored the Church's threat.
Today, the Church takes pride in its presence on social media and says it works with Google "almost daily" on web ad campaigns.
"The teamwork has resulted in exciting technology and user experience milestones like our rich media YouTube channel as well as the YouTube homepage interactive experience seen by 61,771,958 people in a single day in February of this year."
But that impressive traffic day, it must be noted, was largely thanks to a Superbowl advertisement costing several millions of dollars.
So while it may have embraced the internet for its own purposes, organisations like the Church of Scientology still face the internet's disregard for secrecy as a constant threat.
According to some measures, the Church is suffering from declining membership. Many who leave the Church are now more able to speak out - particularly with the help of blogs and social media, a threat that even the most intensive use of copyright laws struggles to touch.
"Founder L Ron Hubbard told them how to do everything in life," reflects Dr Poulter from Wikipedia.
"But he didn't leave any instructions on how to handle the internet."
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