Warning: Prince Xenu could destroy the Net

When a Californian decided to share Scientology's secrets on the Internet, the sect issued a writ. The case could have serious consequences, writes Sean Langan

The sun was still rising when Dennis Erlich heard the knock on the door he had been dreading ever since he left the Church of Scientology in 1982. It was 7.30am on 13 February this year, and Erlich, a former minister of the church, had just stepped out of the shower.

Armed with a civil writ of seizure, and accompanied by a Glendale County police officer, 20 Scientologists entered his Californian home. They searched his rubbish bins and every one of his computer files until they found what they were looking for: the secrets of the universe.

Seven hours later they departed, but not before they had deleted and confiscated various computer files and discs. The secrets of the universe they had recovered were those postulated by L Ron Hubbard, a former science- fiction writer and the founder of the Church of Scientology. Mr Erlich had been posting Scientology material on the Internet in an attempt, he says, "to alert people to the dangers".

The secrets are part of the sacred writings of Scientology, but are also treated as trade secrets subject to copyright laws. Even the term Scientology is a federally registered trademark. Scientologists can pay anything up to $250,000 for a series of special courses to learn the secrets - that, for example, 75 million years ago, earth was part of a galactic confederation ruled by the evil Prince Xenu. When Dennis Erlich posted some of the writings on the Internet for millions to read, the cult decided to sue him for violating copyright laws. One Scientologist explained why: "It's not helpful to see [the secrets] before you have gone up a carefully gradient path of knowledge."

If it had ended there, the case would have been forgotten as just another minor incident involving a global cult and the new medium for global communication. Writs for libel and copyright infringement on the anarchic system are being issued in ever-increasing numbers.

But the case, which comes to court this month, has potentially catastrophic implications for the Internet. The Scientologists have also named a company called Netcom in their lawsuit. Netcom is Erlich's Internet provider. If the American courts decide in favour of the Scientologists, such companies (the equivalent of Demon, Easynet and the like in the UK) will be responsible for messages put on to the Net by their subscribers. That is analogous to British Telecom having to eavesdrop on every telephone conversation in Britain.

Mr Erlich is not the Scientologists' only target. In July, the church issued a lawsuit against a Mr Lerna, an Internet user, Digital Gateway Corporation, an access provider, and the Washington Post, which reported on the case. And 10 days ago US marshals raided the homes of former Scientologists Larry Wollersheim and Robert Penny, who run an electronic bulletin board. "There are a lot of bucks riding on this," says Dan Liepold, a lawyer who has been involved in many Scientology cases. "They'll shut down the damn Internet if they win."

Of course, the Scientologists want no such thing. They merely want to put an end to what they consider to be copyright violation and the "anarchy created by some Net users". In their eyes, companies that provide access to the Internet, and even bulletin boards which provide space on the Net, should be held responsible for what is carried on the system.

Like BT, Netcom does not monitor what is carried on its system. It will argue in court that it is in effect a landlord in cyberspace: it provides the space but cannot, as legal precedent has established, be responsible for what happens in it. The fact that Netcom has to resort to such abstruse arguments reflects the bizarre nature of this case. The Internet is uncharted legal territory, and the courts will have to go where no law has gone before.

If Netcom did not exist, it says, everything it carries would simply switch to another service provider. "Going after us is like trying to stop water flowing through a colander by blocking up just one of the tiny little holes," says Randy Rice, one of Netcom's lawyers.

Mike Goodwin, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an American pressure group that has taken up the cases of both Netcom and Dennis Erlich, believes people "have to adapt their understanding to the way the law should work to a new medium which is structured differently. This is the first medium in the history of mankind in which individuals have been able to reach mass audiences without any intervening editorial control". The individual becomes the writer, publisher and broadcaster, and for the price of a local call can reach as many people as Rupert Murdoch.

Dan O'Brien, a journalist at Wired magazine, says: "Everyone on the Net is in some way a carrier. The Scientologists are used to going after the traditional media when they don't like something, but in this case they are struggling to find anything they can get hold of."

Netcom describes the Scientologists as the "perfect plaintiff". If anyone had to bring this case, it might as well be a cult that is widely regarded with suspicion. "But," says Randy Rice, "my clients would be much happier if there were laws dealing with this, because this is very expensive. We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just trying to figure out what the law is."

In the past year the US has seen a rash of proposals and congressional bills to deal with what some people view as a dangerously out of control phenomenon. The Senate has been considering the Communications Decency Act of 1995 - which would hold all on-line services in America criminally liable for any postings on their system. There is also the recently passed Digital Telephony Bill, which states that any public communications network that carries both voice and data must be designed so federal authorities can listen in.

Meanwhile, Senator James Exon wants to make the Internet "safe for children". He has suggested increasing the penalties for people who break the law on the Internet but, like the Scientologists, he has tried to hold not only the individual author responsible, but also the companies that distribute the material.

Shari Steele, another lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that "we are going to be see some bad litigation in the years to come before it gets resolved. It is inevitable that laws will be passed. I just hope they are combined with clear thinking about the ramifications". The irony, of course, is that a cult set up by a science fiction writer - who taught his followers to believe in space-age galactic civilisations - should be the one to threaten what was once science fiction, but is now science fact.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

    Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

    salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower