(a major Dutch newspaper), September 14, 1995


By Rik Smits Last week, an usher and a lawyer from the renowned law-firm Nautha-Dutilh unexpectedly entered the office of the Amsterdam Internet-provider XS4ALL (Access for all). They had been asked by the Church of Scientology to seize the computers, because these had supposedly been used by XS4ALL to violate the churches' copyright. A day later, the zeizure was relieved. For a short time, the war that has been going on for some time between the cult and its former members, surfaced. In this war, the Internet serves as a battlefield. And just like ordinary wars devastate the battlefield, this fierce battle can have big and unpleasant consequences for the Internet. What exactly was the issue? Anyone who has walked through the Kalverstraat, a famous Amsteerdam shopping-area, in the past years will have seen them. The boys, most of them USA citizens, who offer the young, lonely or seemingly unstable by-passers a free personality-test. Anyone who accepts the offer, is taken to a building that was once aptly described by the Dutch writer Gerrit Komrij as the stench-hole on the Nieuwezijds': the headquarters of the Scientology-church. In all cases, an hour of being questioned and doing tests made clear that there wasn't too big a personality-problem, but nevertheless the test revealed a few weak spots. But the Church of Scientology has developed a perfect course to help you solve those problems, and best of all: not all too expensive. This was the way in which new cult-members are crimped and once inside, financially stripped naked. For the Evil has chosen your body and soul as a home - mysterious Thetans that can only be expelled by taking extensive and expensive courses. Thanks to these courses, the cult makes a lot of money. Therefore it's understandable that the copyright on the texts involved is guarded with great zeal. Renegades who want to expose the cult, for instance by publishing the texts, are being hindered by all possible means. That's understandable, but not decent, because the cult interprets the term by all possible means' very literally. If necessary, it's not afraid to seriously harass its opponents, or (as has been testified) go even further than that. The seizure at XS4ALL was a part of such a campaign against former scientologists and the people who sympathize with them. One of the Internet's facilities is the so-called anonymous remailer'. It's a program that strips the name and sender from newsgroup-postings and e-mail and replaces it by a meaningless code before sending it to it's destiny. This way, it's possible to contact others and remain anonymous. It's no big news, just the digital version of the registered letter-service that any newspaper provides. XS4ALL ran such a remailer. Someone had used the remailer to publish articles on the Internet about the testimony of a former scientologist, a man called Fishman, in a trial against the cult. These documents contain fragments of very expensive courses. The cult wanted them to be removed from the Internet, and therefore asked for a seizure at XS4ALL. A day later, when the user concerned had removed the material, the seizure was relieved. But even though the cult doesn't have all to clean hands, the arguments of its opponents aren't that good in this particular case. They claim that nothing has been published that hasn't already been revealed to the public. "Don't forget", they state, "that we're talking about documents of trial in the USA, and these can be accessed by the general public. It doesn't have to cost you a cent, you only have to go to the court where the trial was held. You can even ask for photocopies to be made." This is all true, but that's not what it's about. When a certain text is published in legal documents, the copyright remains with the author. If this were not the case, the novel Nader tot U', by the Dutch author Gerard Reve, would have been outlawed after the famous donkey-trial' in the sixties. I don't suppose Reve would happy about that. [translator's note: in the book, the author described sexual intercourse with God, who came to him in the body of a donkey] In itself, this bickering between former members and their cult is only interesting because of the unprecedented ferocity with which the battle is fought. But the cult's strategy to hold the provider responsible instead of the person who actually publishes their material puts the case in a much broader perspective. It's a direct attempt to put heavy restrictions on a medium, the Internet, because it spreads unpleasing opinions. Recently, especially in politically correct organizations and amongst Christian fundamentalists, more people demand that providers be regarded as publishers and not as some sort of telephone-company that doesn't have a responsablity for what the users publish' on the network. If that point of view becomes the offical and legal point of view, it will mean the end of the Internet as an open channel of communication. Physically, it's impossible to effectively control the avalanche of sense and nonsense that floods the Net. Therefore the providers' only (and very insecure) defense lies in strict selfregulation. The Internet will on the long run be occupied by commercial companies, who don't want to offend anyone. It'll be one giant commercial break. No provider will be able to afford the risk that political discussion and possibly controversial cultural expressions bring about. That's not a very pleasant prospect for a society like ours, that highly depends on a free exchange of knowledge and information, and where freedom of expression is considered as a big asset.