A Web of their own

A Web of their own: By Janelle Brown. Scientologists say their Internet filter protects the faithful. Critics call it "cult mind-control."

Published July 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

If you are a Scientologist, your church is hoping that you'll get online and build a Web site endorsing your religious beliefs. In fact, the Church of Scientology will give you a Web starter kit to do just that. It will even host your site for you, alongside those of thousands of fellow Scientology members.

But if you want to visit alt.religion.scientology, the Web site of Operation Clambake or just about any page that mentions the word "Xenu," you're out of luck. In fact, you'd probably be unable to read this article. Because the starter kit that you just used to build your Web site also installed what Scientology critics are calling the "Scieno Sitter": a filtering program, like those used to hide pornography from children, that prevents Scientologists from seeing terms and phrases that the church has decided to block.

Opponents of Scientology -- and there are many online -- say that the Scientology On-line project's filter is "cult mind-control for the 21st century" that stifles free speech. Members of the Church of Scientology say instead that it's a protective program, safeguarding the religious members from seeing materials that they never wanted to see in the first place.

Either way, one thing is for certain: This is the latest skirmish in a protracted battle -- with no end in sight.

The Church of Scientology was originally founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s around a belief system that is part psychology, part technology. Members are encouraged to become "clear" -- to achieve a state of higher spiritual existence -- via expensive auditing and courses. If you take more courses, you reach higher "Operating Thetan" (or OT) levels and can read sacred documents, which detail an ancient world of intergalactic spirits. Scientology claims to have 8 million members worldwide (though critics put that number as low as 50,000), including high-profile celebrities like John Travolta, Kelly Preston and Tom Cruise.

Detractors call Scientology a cult, primarily because of the cost of achieving higher OT levels (reportedly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) and the testimony of ex-members who claim that some Scientologists are mistreated and brainwashed. The church, on the other hand, says that it is a victim of religious bigotry, and that it deserves the same respect as any other faith.

Scientology and its online critics have fought a long, well-documented war, with the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology as ground zero. Here, vocal critics spar with a small group of Scientologists and former Scientologists -- debates in the past have been interrupted by mysterious cancelbots and pro-Scientology spamming that threatened to shut the newsgroup down. The Church of Scientology has raided the homes of critics who published portions of their "secret documents" online, and brought lawsuits against people it charges are violating its many trademarks.

In 1998, the war still isn't over. Instead, the critics are louder than ever -- alt.religion.scientology is one of Usenet's biggest newsgroups, and still predominantly critical -- and groups like Operation Clambake have sprung up to spread information critical of Scientology. The "sacred" texts of Scientology, and endless reams of documents and commentary about Scientology's conflicts on the Internet, have been copied hundreds of time across the Net. In response, the Church of Scientology has posted lengthy position papers of its own on the Web.

So perhaps it wasn't surprising when, on L. Ron Hubbard's birthday on March 13, 1998, Scientology official Mark Ingber announced the church's newest online initiative: on-line.scientology.org. In a speech that was viewed by members all over the world (and later distributed online), Ingber announced that every Scientology member would soon have a Web site.

According to transcripts posted on a Scientology critic's site, Ingber said in his speech: "Logging on to the Internet is like opening a giant phone book. When you log in and enter the word 'Scientology,' you'll get all the listings that contain that word from whenever and wherever, anywhere in the world. And while we've been reaching a high volume of people through our 116 main Internet sites, we look at it this way, we have a whole planet to clear." Every Church member, he said, would get a Web site starter kit that would allow the creation of a personal "I am a Scientologist" Web site.

Four months later, there are thousands of "I am a Scientologist" Web sites on the Internet -- 10,000, by the church's own count, though critics who have performed their own census have put the number at 7,300.

According to Charlotte Kates, an 18 year-old New Jersey student who says she spent six months in Scientology (she departed in mid-May), the Scientology On-line project dispenses to each and every church member a CD-ROM containing templates for building a Web site. After filling out the template with personal information, the members send their Web site materials to the main Scientology office for approval to use the Scientology "marks and works" (Scientology has laid legal claim to dozens of words and terms, everything from the word "Scientology" and "Dianetics" to terms like "Purification," "Source," "Advance!" "OT" and "New Vitality Rundown"). After approval is granted, the member can post the Web site. If a Scientologist doesn't have a computer or Net connection, staff members will fill out the template and post it for the member, hosting the sites on Scientology's servers.

The Web sites are look-alikes. Each "personal home page" has five sections: "About Myself," " My Success in Scientology," "My Favorite L. Ron Hubbard Quote," "Groups I Support" (the groups consist of a selection of organizations associated with Scientology, like the Narconon drug-addiction group and the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group that fights psychiatry), plus "Favorite Links" (a selection of Scientology Web sites and groups). Each site also includes a "Support Religious Tolerance" banner that links back to www.scientology.org and a "Contact Me" section with forms for sending e-mail, phone numbers and address information to the site's owner.

A "view source" of the Scientology site template reveals a long list of keywords related to Scientology -- presumably to top-load the search engines with as much pro-Scientology material as possible. Considering the sheer number of pages and keywords, it's not surprising that if you plug the words "Scientology" or "Scientologist" into a search engine today, many of the pages you'll pull up are "I am a Scientologist" pages, rather than those of Scientology critics.

Linda Peters, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology International, says (via e-mail) that the goal of the Scientology On-line program is to "make it easy for Scientologists to assist others in providing information, to express their views and to help others find out for themselves what Scientology is all about -- by finding out from a Scientologist who has his own personal story to tell."

Explains Dean Blehert, a poet and 30-year Scientology member, "Certainly I'd like a fairer representation for Scientology. There are probably a few hundred of these 'critics.' There are several million people who value Scientology ... If someone does a search on the Web and comes up with item after item that attacks Scientology, and nothing that speaks positively of it, that's an odd misrepresentation. If those of us who know it well and value it don't speak out, who will?"

But the search engines are well aware of Scientology's efforts. "We heard about this major push to load up the search engines a couple months ago," says Adam Gross, senior customer service representative at Lycos. "We didn't get real worried about it. We're pretty protected from a major effort like that just from the way we catalogue." (This wasn't the first time he had heard from the Church of Scientology, he says -- a representative from Scientology called him up last year asking that 20,000 Web-page addresses be submitted to the search engine in specific areas.)

When the members of alt.religion.scientology heard of the Scientology On-line project, which they dubbed a "Web spam," they went into action -- documenting the pages, informing the search engines of what was happening and investigating the Web site templates. Some participants were even excited about the online initiation of thousands of Scientologists: It meant that more church members might be exposed to critical points of view. As one person posted, "Scientologists are now explicitly being directed to the Web; this will result in some truthful information seeping back in to the cult core."

But if the critics who roost in alt.religion.scientology thought that Scientology Net-newbies might suddenly become readers of and participants in their newsgroup, that hope was dispelled by the sudden appearance of the Scieno Sitter.

According to documents supplied by ex-Scientologist Kates, Section 7 of the contract that all Scientologists have to sign in order to gain permission to build their Scientology Web site says that members must "agree to use the specific Internet Filter Program that CSI has provided to you which allows you freedom to view other sites on Dianetics, Scientology or its principals without threat of accessing sites deemed to be using the Marks or Works in an unauthorized fashion or deemed to be improper or discreditable to the Scientology religion." After posting their Web sites, Scientologists are instructed to install a provided version of Netscape 4.0 that is preconfigured with this filter.

No one outside the church knew exactly what this filter was until last month, when Kates appeared on an Internet Relay Chat channel used regularly by alt.religion.scientology members. With the filter installed in her browser, Kates demonstrated exactly what it would do: Conversation was impossible, as Kates was kicked off the chat line every time certain words were typed (Xenu, for example) or when certain people entered the room.

It appeared that the filter was blocking Scientologists from seeing or discussing "forbidden" words. Several software professionals in alt.religion.scientology obtained copies of the filter, from Kates and other anonymous self-proclaimed Scientology members, and examined the code. What they found was a program that seemed to be based on the popular CyberSitter software from Solid Oak, and included a list of hundreds of verboten Web sites, names of critics and Scientology terms. Alt.religion.scientology was blocked altogether, as well as the names of many of the Usenet members themselves -- even including a few current Scientologists who had participated in alt.religion.scientology.

"I'm one of the names that is blocked by the filter, even though my relationship with Scientology is extremely tangential. I've not posted anything scandalous at all," says Thaddeus Beier, a software developer and alt.religion.scientology member who helped examine the software-filter code. "I don't think that filtering software is necessarily a bad idea if you're upfront about it; spam filters, for example, are a good idea. But this is something that's done under the table -- a huge number of the terms that are banned are completely unrelated to the stated goals. I find that disturbing."

According to Beier, Kates and others in the group that studied the filter, it sometimes simply blanks out offending words on Web sites -- making much of the Web difficult to read, since the list includes "strings" (sequences of letters) like "SP" (for "Suppressive Person," or church critic) and "NOTS" (New Operating Thetan Levels). Other terms -- such as the names "Robert Vaughn Young" (a former Scientology member who has written about the church), "McPherson" (the name of a Scientologist who died under church care) and "Xenu" (a mythical figure revealed in church texts accessible only to advanced members) -- will shut down your browser. The filter, which only works with Windows 95, performs similar blocking functions on a user's e-mail.

The members of alt.religion.scientology have spent plenty of time debating just why the filter might exist. Some believe that Scientology wants to prevent members from seeing documents that they would otherwise have to pay to see. Others believe that Scientology is afraid that the more extreme documents -- those explaining the intergalactic leader Xenu, for example -- might scare away recent Scientology converts. And, of course, most think that Scientology doesn't want its members to hear its critics.

Scientology spokeswoman Peters says the filter was developed because "many of our parishioners want to use the Internet but asked for a filter protection from those elements that have sought to twist and pervert the religion ... Therefore, like many other religions and groups, we have provided a filter so our parishioners can enjoy their right to practice their religion without suffering harassment and intimidation for doing so."

Several current and former Scientologists agree that it's likely many Scientologists want to use this filter. Part of the Scientology doctrine teaches members that the sacred documents should only be read when a member is spiritually ready, after years of auditing. While she was a church member, Kates recalls, she believed that if she accidentally read about OT 3 or Xenu before the proper time, it could kill her. Additionally, church members believe that being exposed to "entheta" (negative energy of any kind, which presumably includes criticism of Scientology) can harm their personal spiritual growth.

That's certainly the reason given by the documentation for the Scientology On-Line CD-ROM, which reads: "By popular demand from Scientologists, a program has been developed to prevent you from being subjected to 'entheta' and hate mail on the Internet. This filter allows you direct access to our sites rapidly, without being dev-t'd by vilifying material, forgeries, and hate messages. In this fashion your attention can remain focused on dissemination and setting people's feet on the Bridge to Total Freedom."

Not all Scientologists -- particularly the more Web-savvy members -- have installed the filter. Russell Shaw and "Whippersnapper," Scientologists who have actively participated in the debates on alt.religion.scientology (ironically, Whippersnapper is included in the filter's list of blocked terms), both chose not to build a Scientology Web site or install the filter for the time being -- though both say they support its use. If he had a child, Whippersnapper says, he would install the filter to protect his child from the "prurient and shocking allegations" of the anti-Scientology critics.

Why does he believe there's a need for the filter? "First and foremost, because of materials Scientologists consider secret and sacred, which have been deliberately disseminated by a large number of the critics," Whippersnapper writes. "This one fact alone explains the near-total non-participation of Scientologists in the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, the very existence of the filter, and most of the bitterness of the sometime conflict between the Church and the more prominent critics ... Exposure of that material is almost without exception a rude, almost violent act without rational purpose. Scientologists are expected to avoid all contact with that material, and the critics who publicize them, primarily on the Net, know it very well."

But those Scientologists who don't participate in alt.religion.scientology, where the filter has been dissected, seem to have quite a different perception of its capabilities. Dean Blehert, for example, believes that the filter merely works to prevent anti-Scientology spam. As he sees it, "The filter doesn't 'prevent me from having to see the Web sites of anti-Scientology critics.' It's a spam filter that spares me having to wade through mail I don't care to receive. If I want to search the Web for anti-Scientology sites, I can ... On occasion, putting up a site that says one is a Scientologist results in one getting flamed with anti-Scientology spam."

Blehert compares the anti-Scientology groups on the Web to hate groups -- a common comparison by the Church of Scientology. He asks, if you were Jewish, why would you want to visit anti-Semitic sites? He has, he says, only benefited from Scientology, and reading some of the more vehement attackers of his religion is both depressing and the "road to paranoia."

Church spokeswoman Peters says that the Scientology software kit was "designed in-house." And Solid Oak, the software developer, denies having anything to do with Scieno Sitter, but acknowledges that its code could have been used via a sub-licensee. Ironically, the standard CyberSitter software blocks all Scientology Web sites as "cults," so if Scieno Sitter is based on the same code makes it look, as president Brian Milburn puts it, "like we're blocking them and then turning around and selling to them."

Milburn says: "Scientology is not one of our customers. However, I have looked at the information on the Internet, and I can say that it appears likely that [Scientology's filter technology] comes from one of our sublicensees." CyberSitter licenses a tool kit to groups that want to build their own non-commercial filters.

Milburn adds: "[Scientologists] run a nasty game, and I don't particularly want to get involved with them." Yet Solid Oak will likely be profiting if the Scientologists did use its code: CyberSitter licensees are required to pay royalties for every user of the licensed filtering software.

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Why do the members of alt.religion.scientology care so much? For the longtime critics, the list of barred words, phrases and sites shows them in detail exactly what scares their opponents. As Iain Brown, another member of the team that studied the Scieno Sitter code, puts it, "In a way, it isn't especially important to me, in that the Scientologists that are using this filter have signed up for it voluntarily. But it's also interesting to me to know exactly what it is that is frightening the church -- whose names are on the list, what places do they not want their members to see. I want to know what they think is bad."

Some members of alt.religion.scientology are almost proud of their pariah status: Many point out the fact in their .sig files. Robert Vaughn Young says, via e-mail, "I did manage to see the list of forbidden areas that was hacked and am honored to be on the list. What this organization is trying to do would make any dictator or any group that wants to control the minds of others envious."

For Charlotte Kates, recently departed from Scientology, the filter's meaning is more personal. "It so epitomizes what Scientology does to its members, the thought-control processes," she says. "Scientology has the slogan 'Think for yourself' -- and then you look at this and it's like, wow, this is Scientology mind control as it would look in programming language. This is cult mind control for the 21st century."

The Scientology On-line project and its filter have undoubtedly rekindled -- or perhaps simply escalated -- the war between Scientology and its Internet critics. But the emergence of 10,000 Scientologists on the Web has had one unexpected side effect on the relationship between the two groups: The church's greatest critics are suddenly seeing the human faces of their opponents. Thaddeus Beier, alt.religion.scientology regular Deana Holmes and several others have been carefully documenting the personal information from the "I am a Scientologist" home pages -- building databases of pictures, testimony and biographies.

As Beier says, "I see a big distinction now -- between the Scientology organization and the techniques they use to extract money from people, which I find wretched, and on the other hand the believers, who are good, normal people. If anything they're just too trusting. Anything that prevents them from seeing the truth is a really bad deal."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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