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Web awash in critics of Scientology

The church's tightly controlled image is taking hits as soured ex-members go online.

March 03, 2008|David Sarno | Times Staff Writer

"It was an awesome news story," Denton wrote in an e-mail. "If we didn't race to post it up, some other site would have. That, rather than litigation by Scientology, was the fear going through my mind."

The church's whack-a-mole campaign with the Cruise video became a rallying cry for Anonymous, which saw efforts to remove the videos from YouTube as an unwanted incursion into the domain of digital culture, where information and media, copyrighted or no, are often exchanged freely.

In a YouTube video of its own, Anonymous declared open war on the church. Early on, the group also staged cyber-attacks on Scientology websites.

But on Feb. 10, thousands of masked Anonymous members picketed at Scientology locations around the globe, chanting slogans and handing out fliers. No violent incidents were reported. The protests generated yet another wave of online media -- videos, photos, news stories, blog posts -- little of it in praise of Scientology.

The result of all this attention has been that just about any story critical of Scientology -- even those that have been publicly accessible for years -- can gain immediate Web currency. On Digg.com, a popular "social news" aggregator that features popular stories from around the Web, dozens of Scientology stories have ascended to the site's most-viewed list in the last several weeks. A successful Digg story can drive tens of thousands of views to the originating site, as was the case with Pilutik's post about e-meters.

In addition, the clamor generated by Anonymous has raised the profile of the small but vehement anti-Scientology community that existed before Anonymous, and even made for some cross-pollination between the two camps.

Scientology's longtime detractors, such as those at Operation Clambake (xenu.net) and Scientology Lies, claim it is not a religion at all but a business that charges its parishioners ever more onerous fees for access to revealed truths. Other online forums, such as the Ex-Scientologist Message Board and ExScientologyKids, have become places for former members to congregate, share stories and offer support

Ironically, it is the church's aversion to negative publicity -- and the legal strategy it has long used to prevent it, that has aroused more online ire than any other issue.

The website ChillingEffects .com has posted dozens of cease-and-desist letters sent by Scientology's lawyers to various website and Internet service providers requesting that copyrighted material be removed.

But in the diffuse and often Byzantine world of the Web, some precision legal strikes are more likely to backfire than hit their target. Scientology's use of copyright law appears to be an increasingly losing battle on the Web, said Andrew Bridges, a San Francisco-based intellectual property attorney. "The big question is: Is the copyright serving the purpose of promoting science and the useful arts, or is the purpose essentially the stifling of criticism?"

Still, according to Scientology spokeswoman Pouw, the church views the Internet as a positive tool. It is, Pouw said, "concentrating on using the Internet as a resource for promoting its message and mission in this world, not as a ground for litigation."

But now that goal will have to exist alongside a seemingly steady stream of online attacks. And while anonymous political activity, such as postering around a town, is nothing new, Bridges noted, the speed of the Web is what is giving Scientology trouble.

"What's different is that more people can see the stuff faster than Scientology can go around and get it taken down."

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