HUNTING RABBITS, SERVING SPAM: THE NET UNDER SIEGE

The growing popularity of the Internet has spawned discussion groups that offer something for just about everyone, from lovers of Jean-Luc Picard (try alt.sexy.bald.captains) to haters of a certain children's television program (alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die) to obsessives consumed by politics, computer lore, comic books or the hidden messages embedded in a single rock song (alt.meter-maid.lovely.rita). Few newsgroups, though, have drawn the kind of following now evident on alt.religion.scientology (a.r.s.), an international debating circle concerning the Church of Scientology.

Always controversial, in recent months a.r.s. has become the primary battleground in cyberspace in the dispute over Scientology's Advanced Technology documents--and a test of the Internet's vaunted ability to police itself. Postings of the documents to a.r.s. by FACTNet director Arnaldo Lerma and others have led to raids on computer users by representatives of the Church, legal threats against other posters, and what appear to be extra-legal, retaliatory actions against a.r.s. by anonymous, pro-Scientology forces.

Established three years ago by ex-Scientologist Scott Goehring, a.r.s. had a distinctly anti-Church bias from the start. On his own World Wide Web page, Goehring boasts that he "forged" an e-mail message from Scientology leader David Miscavige to start the group. (Actually, anyone can start a newsgroup; whether it's carried by service providers depends on the level of usage it attracts.) Although few Scientologists joined the discussion, the group soon attracted a stream of postings from critics of the Church, including "free-zoners"--ex-members who believe in the basics of Hubbard's teachings but prefer to make their own E-meters and audit themselves rather than submit to the Church hierarchy.

As with other controversial newsgroups, "flaming" and other forms of rowdy speech are common on a.r.s. But last Christmas the group began to encounter a new phenomenon--forged cancel messages that zapped other users' postings off the system. In most cases, what was being zapped were discussions of Advanced Technology secrets.

Canceling someone else's message is more than a violation of "netiquette"; under federal law, it can be a felony, comparable to destroying mail. One outlaw known as the "Cancelmoose" has been canceling messages on the Net for years, but the Cancelmoose only goes after "spam"--annoying commercial messages, usually, that are sent out to dozens of newsgroups indiscriminately.

The a.r.s. cancels were another matter, and they soon attracted the interest of computer experts and Net administrators who had never paid any attention to the Scientology debate. "This was the first time I'd seen this done on a large scale, canceling messages based on content," says Dick Cleek, a professor of geography and computer science at the University of Wisconsin.

Cleek and other tech-heads decided to join forces to trace the cancel messages to their source. Some of the early postings came from accounts at Netcom, which responded by suspending the accounts. Increasingly, though, the canceler began to use bogus account names such as "robocanceller" and "noman" and to go to greater lengths to disguise the path of the messages to a.r.s. Every time the computer experts tracked down an account and had it suspended, the canceler moved to another account.

Ron Newman, who operates a Web site detailing the a.r.s. battles, dubbed the intruder the "Cancelbunny," after the Energizer bunny that keeps going and going. Cleek's team became known as the Rabbit Hunters.

By examining log files at telnet sites (a form of Internet server that can be accessed from a remote terminal), studying usage activity and other indicators, a few weeks ago the Rabbit Hunters managed to track the Cancelbunny back to an account in the name of Brian Stone at a California newsserver, kaiwan.com. "Every time they logged on, another cancel got sent," Cleek notes.

One night Cleek watched "bstone" in action, tracking his movements by computer. "We could see him telnetting frantically from site to site, trying to find a newsserver that would take the [cancel] command," he says. "He found one in Taiwan, but that one only sends news to Chinese groups, so that didn't fit his purposes. He telnetted to twenty or thirty places, and then he must have given up.

"We got a cancel message the next day, and guess what the origin was--kaiwan.com. He telnetted to his own newsserver and issued the cancel from there."

Although the "bstone" account was eventually disabled by kaiwan.com, a.r.s. continues to be plagued by cancel messages from fresh accounts. The Cancelbunny has even taken to signing his work, advising, "This message was canceled due to copyright violations--Cancel Wabbit."

But the bunny's effectiveness is diminishing. Many newsservers don't honor cancel messages, and any savvy a.r.s. reader can find the unexpurgated version without too much trouble. In addition, an ex-Scientologist has devised a program called Lazarus that automatically alerts a.r.s. readers to the cancel messages--in effect inviting the censored author to repost. And the Rabbit Hunters have turned their findings over to the FBI for investigation.

"I thought long and hard before calling the FBI," Cleek says. "You open a door there, and maybe we could have policed it ourselves. But we want to stay within the law. We don't want to become like the other people.

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