AT&T and Scientology's Online Battle

Wired News, June 3, 1999
by Polly Sprenger

An anonymous online critic of Scientology is the subject of a legal complaint targeting newsgroup postings of church doctrines. It is the latest move by the church to prosecute what it maintains are copyright abuses online.

Attorneys for Scientology-backed Bridge Publications have served AT&T WorldNet with a subpoena demanding that the Internet service provider reveal the identity of an online critic.

The WorldNet subscriber said that he wants to remain anonymous, afraid that the Scientologists will harass him because of his views about the church.

"I am scared of this church," he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "Can you believe that? [A] church is supposed to be there for spiritual redemption and I'm freaking scared of them?"

The man, who goes by the alias Safe, said that it's a Catch-22 situation: He can keep AT&T from revealing his identity by arguing against the subpoena in court. But if he chooses to argue in court, he must identify himself. If he doesn't argue the subpoena, AT&T will be forced to comply and will reveal his name to the Scientologists.

The Church of Scientology is notorious for litigation to protect its copyrighted works. Critics like Keith Henson, an engineer from Palo Alto, California, who criticized the group in online newsgroups, have found themselves the subject of lawsuits after posting parts of the group's doctrines. But that's not the worst of it.

Henson said that, in addition to filing suit against him in 1996, the church has picketed various companies where he has worked as a consultant, hung up posters defaming him, and posted Web sites critical of his actions.

Ava Paquette, an attorney for the church who filed the subpoena for Safe's identity, declined any comment on the latest case, other than to say that Safe had violated Bridge's copyright, and that it was a serious matter.

"It's a legal action that's ongoing. It's between me, AT&T, and the subscriber," she said.

AT&T representative Jonathon Varman said that the ISP had not yet complied with subpoena, and that its legal team was evaluating how to proceed.

"We are looking for a way to do the best for our customer and still comply with the courts," Varman said. Paula Phillips, litigation manager for AT&T WorldNet, said that Safe's attorneys could act on his behalf and protect its customer's name and address.

Phillips said that AT&T had not complied with the subpoena but had asked instead for an extension, since the original subpoena had a Wednesday deadline.

Dan Liepold, an attorney who has represented a number of defendants against suits brought by Scientologists, said that Safe had contacted him for representation in this case.

Liepold said that the Scientologists have named two of Safe's postings in the subpoena ( here and here). One of the postings contains a list of crimes, according to Scientologists.

The list includes items such as "Discourtesy and insubordination" and "committing a problem," as well as 272 other crimes.

Safe, ironically, considers himself to be a Scientologist. While he disagrees with the teachings of current church leaders, he said that he lives his life by the principles laid out by Scientology's founders.

In the court filing, attorneys for Bridge Publications said that provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allow "copyright owners or a person authorized to act on the owner's behalf," to request the clerk of any US District Court to issue a subpoena to a service provider for identification of an alleged infringer.

Bridge Publications, according to the filing, owns the copyright for materials, including "PR Series 18," or "How to Handle Black Propaganda," "Suppressive Acts," and the list, which is entitled "Offenses and Penalties."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.