Tangled Webs

    The Ghost in the Machine
Issue 5.6
Nov 20, 2000



Hardball


The Church of Scientology is one of the most widely known and controversial institutions on the Internet. The group is headquartered in Los Angeles, based on the writings of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, and counts such Hollywood stars as Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its followers.

What has kept Scientology in the Internet spotlight, however, is not the fame of its current flock, but the fact that many lesser known ex-members have been using the Internet to anonymously expose Scientology's practices. The ferocity with which the church tries to silence such critics has not endeared them to an Internet that hold free-speech and open information flow so dear.

Scientology's legal teams regularly sue ISPs, usually on the grounds of copyright infringement, to determine the identities of these critics. Keith Henson an ex-member who had posted some of the church's private teachings was ordered to pay US$75,000 for violating copyright laws. Amazon.com was forced to pull a book critical of the cult from the UK web site in 1999. Other critics have had their computers confiscated.

Unfortunately, Scientology does not rely solely on legal measures to protect its secrets. For years, they have used special software to delete Usenet postings that contain unfavorable references to the church, and Scientologists have been convicted several times in US courts of harassment and abuse in the course of church activities. Many anonymous critics say they fear for their physical safety once their identities are exposed.



Blackball


Understandably, there are many around the world who bear the sect a great deal of mistrust and ill-will. The sentiment in Germany, however, has been particularly strong. In 1995, German courts ruled that Scientology was not a religion, but commercial organization and, as such, not entitled to special tax privileges. In their decision, the justices quoted L. Ron Hubbard instructing his flock to "make money, make more money -- make other people produce so as to make money."

Although few argue with the court's decision, emotions quickly began to escalate. In 1998, Federal and State Ministers of the interior published a report in which they stated that Scientology's objectives were nothing short of "abolishing the free democratic basic order." Although a three-year government investigation of the sect's activities has failed to turn up any evidence of conspiracy of illegal activity, federal and state governments are prohibited by law from doing business with members of Scientology or organizations with associations with it. State job applicants are required to disclose any ties they may have to the group.



Fastball


Microsoft was pulled into the middle of this hysteria by DisKeeper, a disk-defragmentation program that is one of the dozens of small utilities that are part of Windows2000. Although no one has issue with the software itself, it was developed by a California-based company called Executive Software, and the president of that company is a member of the Church of Scientology.

Now, a rational response to such a revelation would be something along the lines of "So what?" However, it seems the German authorities have moved well beyond the reach of reason. The Federal Office of Security in Information Technology (BSI) quickly declared the tool a potential security threat, stating that it might be used to spy on computer users and send personal data over the Internet to the Church of Scientology.

Even a cursory examination of the software in question shows that is does not and can not do this. Furthermore, it is ridiculous to think that a contractor would write such a program, let alone be able to get it through Microsoft's rigorous review, testing and auditing procedures. To the German government, however, the fact that a Scientologist was somehow involved in the development of the software seemed proof enough of real danger. There were even serious discussions as to whether government agencies could legally upgrade to Windows2000 due to the Scientology connection.

Hans-Gert Lange of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution went as far as to state that DisKeeper was possibly "an endeavor against the main principles of the Constitution." Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on precisely how a software utility that frees up disk space could be so threatening to the German way of life.

Microsoft eventually showed BSI the parts of the source code in question, and thus convinced them that Windows2000 was not part of a Scientology plot to steal personal information about German citizens. BSI confirmed that the disk defragmenter posed no immediate threat to democracy, and the rollout of Windows2000 went ahead largely as planned.

The issue was not fully resolved, however, until November 3rd when Microsoft released detailed instructions on how DisKeeper could be completely removed. This seems to have put all fears to rest. All traces Scientology's influence can now be removed from Windows2000, leaving German computer users with less hard drive space but a more spiritually pure operating system.


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© Copyright 2000, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
This article fist appeared in the November 19th edition of The Japan Times.
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