October 22, 2008


Battling Scientology: Anonymous's Gregg Housh is committed to bringing down the Church of Scientology. Is he a gadfly or a goon? (CHRIS FARAONE, October 20, 2008, Boston Phoenix)

In a world wracked with uncertainty, there is at least one thing you can bet on: pick a fight with the Church of Scientology (CoS), and its leaders will fight back — always with vigor, often with a vengeance, and sometimes with litigation that can be long and costly.

The idea of locking legal horns with the CoS might be enough to cool the ardor of some critics. But that is not Gregg Housh’s style. Housh, an Internet activist and provocateur, is not an easy guy to characterize. A member of a group that calls itself “Anonymous,” Housh is pitted in what appears to be an escalating rift with the CoS. Core constitutional issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are central to the dispute.

Almost 10 months ago, Housh helped launch a protest group that he now describes as the world’s fastest-growing grassroots movement (mobilizing several thousand people in less than one month). The group formed as a response to the removal of a video from YouTube and other sites that featured Tom Cruise describing CoS doctrines and principles. From a few simple mouse clicks, a mighty battle has grown.

Housh is himself a rather casual, almost random sort of activist. A seventh-grade dropout, devout atheist, and proud computer troll, he claims to loathe all political parties equally, and could give a damn about Greenpeace, PETA, or any other picket-happy causes. In fact, had the CoS not “messed” with what he thinks of as his Internets, Housh would probably be wasting his spare time sparking Web mischief instead of dedicating approximately 40 hours every week to Anonymous, his now infamously masked group, whose mission seems to be toying with L. Ron Hubbard’s minions. [...]

Housh and his Anonymous peers are hardly the first to fight the CoS online. The original anti-Scientology Web site, the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, debuted on Usenet in July 1991. For its first three years, the site actually served as a forum for believers and dissenters to exchange opinions, but by 1994 users on the Scientology side had had enough. A memo written by CoS staffer Elaine Siegel addressed church strategy vis-à-vis dealing with dissenters on the Web. “If you imagine 40 to 50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we’ll just run the SPs [Suppressive Persons] right off the system. It will be quite simple . . . I would like to hear from you on your ideas to make the Internet a safe space for Scientology to expand into.” Her memo seemed to enrage secular alt.religion.scientology regulars.

The CoS did more than just post pro-Scientology messages where opposition surfaced. In 1995, it turned to the justice system, claiming that its copyrighted files were being illegally posted on alt.religion.scientology. The dispute over such materials, which parishioners pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain on their journey — or “bridge” — to enlightenment, has been the centerpiece of most CoS feuds with Web detractors. That year, the FBI raided several Usenet posters’ homes, including that of former Scientologist Arnaldo Lerma in Arlington, Virginia, seizing his computer and data-storage devices.

The CoS has a well-documented history of battling opponents: Boston attorney Michael Flynn, who filed lawsuits through the 1980s on behalf of former CoS devotees, was sued more than a dozen times. Reporters, who CoS founder Hubbard labeled “merchants of chaos,” have also been targeted; former Time magazine journalist Richard Behar, whose 1991 exposé “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power” provoked widespread anti-CoS sentiment, found himself under surveillance by CoS investigators while his magazine was sued for $416 million. (The suit was ultimately dismissed, but only after Time Warner Inc. spent $7 million defending itself.) But whereas individuals and even corporations were relatively easy to tie up in lawsuits, the Web posed a newer, less containable wave of protest. In a December 1995 Wired article titled “alt.scientology.war,” writer Wendy M. Grossman described the rift as “mortal combat between two alien cultures. . . . A fight that has burst the banks of the Net and into the real world of police, lawyers, and armed search and seizure.” (The CoS declined to comment on copyright-related litigation.)

CoS actions to quiet online enemies have provoked a great deal of anger. According to Seltzer, contrarian sites such as xenu.net have proliferated as a result. Launched in 1996 by Norwegian tech-provocateur Andreas Heldal-Lund, xenu.net — a comprehensive anti-CoS clearing-house better known as Operation Clambake — became a hub for multimedia, ranging from articles condemning Scientology to detailed insider accounts written by former church officials and secret Hubbard recordings. The church has sued, among others, Heldal-Lund, his service provider, and Google over Operation Clambake postings. It has succeeded in having various copyrighted materials removed. Yet xenu.net remains alive and clicking. Xenu, by the way, is a reference to an evil intergalactic overlord who, top church members reportedly believe, excommunicated billions of aliens to Earth 75 million years ago and incinerated them inside volcanoes. The title, Operation Clambake, is a poke at the late Hubbard’s claim, from his 1952 book, Scientology: A History of Man, that humans evolved from clams.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 22, 2008 8:26 AM
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