The following interview appeared in Deolog: Forum for Beliefs vol.3, no. 4, February 1996, pp. 9,15. This was a special issue on "Enlightenment Online: Religion Takes to the Internet." Deolog is published monthly and distributed at universities, places of worship and businesses throughout New York City by Stealth Technologies, Inc., P.O. Box 138, N.Y., NY 10012 ([email protected]). Subscriptions are $10/year.

Tailgating on the Superhighway

On March 13, 1995 in Mesa, Arizona, Jim Lippard and four others picketed the Scientology building in Mesa, Arizona to protest the church's abuse of the "alt.religion.scientology" newsgroup. The Church of Scientology had been accused of several methods of sabotaging its critics' opinions on the Internet, from canceling posts to threatening dubious legal action to framing a newsgroup member with charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Upon leaving the site, the picketers and their license plates were photographed by the Scientologists. Later in March, the Church of Scientology's principal private investigator was alleged to have been snooping outside one picketer's home. That some so-called religious organizations are capable of such "guerilla censorship" is of concern to both freedom of religion and freedom of speech groups, as the Internet continues to play a larger role in interreligious dialogue. Jim Lippard has an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona, and is presently the Web Administrator for Primenet Services for the Internet in Phoenix, Arizona. He has contributed chapters to the books Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists and Encyclopedia of the Paranormal.

DEOLOG: How did you first get involved in the alt.religion.scientology issue?

Lippard: I first read alt.religion.scientology in late 1991 or early 1992 when I was editor of "The Arizona Skeptic," which had just published an article on Scientology by Jeff Jacobsen. I posted a copy of the article, but saw little response, and so stopped reading the group.

In early 1995, about the time Dennis Erlich's home was raided my interest was again piqued. [Ex-Scientologist Erlich, an active critic of the church, had property seized for the so-called "copyright infringement" he perpetrated in reprinting parts of Scientology scripture in alt.religion.scientology postings -Ed.] The alt.religion.scientology of 1995 was quite different from the alt.religion.scientology of 1992. My interest was primarily because of my anti-censorship views, and only secondarily because of my interest in unusual belief systems and how adherents of differing views maintain their beliefs in an unfriendly environment.

With the pending congressional communications bill condoning some forms of censorship, will groups like the Church of Scientology be strengthened in their efforts to silence dissenting voices?

While the "Communications Decency Act" may have some short-term benefits for groups which wish to suppress dissent, I think that the effects of such legislation would, if not overturned, be to the detriment of groups like Scientology. I think it's much more likely that they'd find their own views declared dangerous and banned. But I think that's highly unlikely, because I think the CDA will be quickly declared unconstitutional if it passes.

Does a tool like the Internet actually enhance the ability of a group like the Church of Scientology to recruit members?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. The way it enhances the ability of any fringe group to recruit members is because the Internet gives them a voice and enables interested people to get in touch with each other regardless of their physical location--and further, to do so in an anonymous or at least non-threatening way. On the other hand, that cuts both ways--Scientology critics can also get in touch with each other, and have a forum where they can combine their knowledge into a critique the likes of which Scientology has not previously encountered. Overall, Scientology is in trouble.

If, however, Scientology were a group which did not harass and abuse individuals, but merely a group with unusual beliefs, I think the Internet would promote its growth so long as there were advocates of the group who could offer rational responses to criticisms.

The "Third Wave" ideal is that democratizing access to information through technology like the Internet will eventually all but eradicate falsehoods--that truth, like cream, will rise. Is this a pipe dream?

There is a grain of truth to this, but propaganda is effective on the Internet as well as elsewhere. As flashy graphics and sound are added, the effectiveness of non-rational methods of persuasion already perfected in television will work on the Internet as well. Where the Internet differs from television is, as you note, that everybody has a voice. For those willing to take the time to sift through even the minority opinions, truth will be discoverable, but it will still take work to find it. Technology just reduces the amount of work, and enables geographically distant persons to assist each other in doing it.

How can a group like the Church of Scientology which wishes to allow only certain parties into its "meetings" attain that privacy in cyberspace? How do we discern privacy from unjust exclusion?

Scientology has a private mailing list (formerly known as TNX-L). To get on the list requires making an application or receiving an invitation, and being vouched for. There are, however, still leaks, so the system is obviously not perfect. The use of PGP could help enhance privacy, but if there is an individual on the list who wants to leak information, there is little they can do to prevent that.

The nature of mailing lists is such that I don't think there is any such thing as "unjust exclusion." Any group of any size can set up whatever distribution lists it wants, with whatever membership criteria are desired. Newsgroups, on the other hand, are traditionally open and tolerant of diversity. Attempts to create exclusionary newsgroups have typically met with strong disapproval--and are essentially unenforceable, anyway.

What is the current status of Scientology's legal battles with its Internet nemeses?

There are currently three cases going on: RTC [Ed. - "Religious Technology Center," the corporate entity that holds the copyrights and trademarks of Scientology] v. Netcom in San Jose, RTC v. Lerma in Virginia, and RTC v. FACTNet in Colorado. RTC v. Lerma will be first to trial, beginning on January 29. There is a pending motion for summary judgment before Judge Leonie Brinkema. The Washington Post and two of its reporters were defendants in the RTC v. Lerma case, but were removed and RTC ordered to pay their court costs. The Church's "trade secret claims" have essentially been thrown out in both RTC v. Lerma and RTC v. FACTNet. [Ed. - At press time, Judge Brinkema had just ruled against Lerma for violation of copyright law in his "wholesale" posting of COS sacred text, but had not yet determined awards due the Church of Scientology, advising the plaintiffs not to expect much in damages.] RTC v. Netcom is proceeding much more slowly, and the judge seems to be more receptive to Scientology's arguments than in the other two cases. RTC v. FACTNet is still in the deposition stage and will probably be ready for trial in the summer.

There was a court case in the Netherlands against four Internet providers which was set to go to trial, but dropped by Scientology a few days before. There are rumors (coming from the Scientology side) that the case will be reintroduced in the near future. At present the "Advanced Technology" materials--comprised of portions of the "OT Levels" which Scientologists are only allowed to access after having achieved a certain level of spiritual development and paying the appropriate course fees--are on over 100 web sites in the Netherlands. These are the same materials which Arnie Lerma posted and which provoked the raid against him.

As the Internet develops, how do you think its relationship with these aggressive, cult-like groups will change?

Many pundits like to observe that when the Internet is confronted with censorship, it deals with it the same way it does with any other kind of network obstacle--it routes around it. There is a great deal of truth to this. The nature of the Internet is such that anyone who takes an aggressive stance that is viewed by a critical mass of Internet users as a danger to the net itself, then steps will be taken to deal with the problem. So far, nobody has been able to successfully suppress information they don't like from the Internet, and I am fairly confident that this will be the case as long as there is an Internet.