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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.

"It seemed to me, and to a number of other Rabbit Hunters, that the situation was so clearly criminal, and we were up against [people] that had such resources, that maybe here was a case where the Net couldn't police itself. But I've had second thoughts about it."

To date no charges have resulted from the cancel messages. Scientology officials deny any connection to the Cancelbunny. The group's international president, Heber Jentzsch, says that the Church doesn't condone such activity and that any suggestions to the contrary are "total garbage."

"We don't have any proof of who's behind the messages," says Rabbit Hunter Ron Newman. But some of the suspect accounts, Newman notes, had been used months earlier to post "pro-Scientology propaganda" on a.r.s.

The Church has taken credit for other actions against a.r.s., though. A few months ago Scientology attorney Helena Kobrin sent an "rmgroup" ("remove group") message to Usenet servers in an attempt to get the entire newsgroup taken off the system. Among other reasons for the request, Kobrin stated that the group was being "heavily abused with copyright and trade-secret violations and serves no purpose other than condoning these illegal practices"--and that the use of "scientology" in the group's name "is a trademark and misleading, as a.r.s. is mainly used for flamers to attack the Scientology religion."

According to Newman, most Usenet administrators simply ignored the message. Kobrin was flamed mercilessly across the void of cyberspace, by Scientology critics and free-speech crusaders alike.

"If you're for free speech, why would you issue an `rm' command?" asks FACTNet's Wollersheim. "When you remove a whole newsgroup, that's wholesale library burning. It's destruction of a whole post office."

"We were kind of new to dealing with the situation," Kobrin says now. "People were providing so-called bright ideas, and somebody suggested that was the way to approach it. Apparently, it was not the way to handle the problem."

Kobrin has since sent dozens of e-mail messages to users of a.r.s. who have posted snippets of the Advanced Technology writings, warning them of possible legal action by the Church. At one point she posted a message to the entire newsgroup, demanding an end to the alleged copyright violations; but anonymous postings of the disputed material continue, along with announcements of Web sites carrying more extensive excerpts of the documents.

A few Scientologists have logged onto a.r.s. with lengthy testimonials to the benefits of the religion. Church representatives have also used a.r.s. to launch personal attacks on their most vocal critics--a tactic known in a.r.s. argot as "dead agenting." The primary target appears to be Wollersheim, who has been blasted online and in Church press releases as a drug user, a trickster who put peanut butter in his underwear to duck the draft, a con artist "involved with scams ranging from selling bad meat to tacky laser prints," and a plagiarist who borrowed heavily from Scientology in his book The Aspen Diet, written under the pseudonym Robert Lawrence.

"They tried to sell the same stuff for six months in my jury case," Wollersheim says. "It was false then, and it's false now. I've gotten to the point where I tell people, `Believe the worst things they say about me, but then go to the documents and make up your own mind.' If I was the worst person in the world, I could still be telling the truth."

Cleek suspects that members of the Church may also be behind the persistent spamming of a.r.s. with messages concerning Windows 95 and other unrelated topics in order to "submerge" the newsgroup in babble.

Some users, wary of the Church's monitoring of a.r.s., have taken to posting anonymously or impersonating other writers--to the extent that it's hard to know who's who any more. One ex-member called "Capricorn" has even suggested that the most vicious attacks on the Church are being posted by Scientologists themselves in an effort to discredit a.r.s.

Kobrin believes that the continual reposting of Hubbard's writings on a.r.s. and other copyright violations on the Internet may ultimately lead to government action. "Law, morality, ethics don't go away just because the Internet was created," she says. "Frankly, I think it's only a handful of users on the Net that are this irresponsible, but they're the noisier ones. And the more they insist on their rights to `free speech'--and posting someone else's materials I don't consider speech at all--the more likely it is that legislation will be needed."

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Cleek, who testified about newsgroup operations as a defense witness in recent hearings regarding the FACTNet computer seizures, says the most significant actions to address abuse of the Net, including cancel messages, are coming from Internet administrators themselves.

"I don't see any realistic discussion in any government agency or task force," Cleek says. "Look at the constituency of those task forces. You've got people there who don't even know what a newsgroup is."

But more people are finding out all the time. According to Cleek, a.r.s. is now drawing at least 65,000 to 75,000 users a month, making it one of the busiest newsgroups on the Net. Message postings now average 500 to 600 a day, more than most readers can keep up with. And Cleek thinks the Cancelbunny is responsible.

"Half of the people on a.r.s. now are there because they're outraged about the cancel messages," he says.

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