A net gag for scientology critics

The (London) Times/October 1, 2002
By David Rowan

Forget that aphorism about history being written by the victors. When it comes to the internet's history, the real power-brokers are proving to be the lawyers - and especially those employed by the Church of Scientology. Last week the internet's biggest digital archive became that much smaller after Scientology lawyers insisted that it remove pages created by the organisation's critics. Those running the archive did so with barely a murmur, proving yet again how effective the church's legal threats can be in undermining free speech.

The archive, known as the Wayback Machine, keeps snapshots of millions of old web pages - a remarkable resource available to anyone free of charge at But last week, researchers looking for pages taken from anti-Scientology sites such as were told that they were no longer available "per the request of the site owner". In fact, the demand had come from the church alone, on the ground that copyrighted material contained within these sites put them in breach of the controversial US Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Under the Act, the church has "asserted ownership" of work contained within these sites. Yet the result has been to remove entire websites, including pages that appear to be within the law.

At, Andreas Heldal-Lund, a long-time opponent of the church, suggests that copyright law is merely a tool to censor critics. "I'm the author, and I never asked that (the site) be removed," he says. Another victim, the respected computer scientist Dave Touretzky, found all his research pages blocked from the archive thanks to some anti-Scientology articles. "I don't exist," he says. "I've been erased from internet history. All because I dared to have some Scientology material on my website."

Although the Wayback Machine receives funding from the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, its day-to-day running depends on volunteers. Faced with the threat of litigation from the Scientologists, the archive appears to have removed entire domains before taking detailed counsel of its own.

After all, no non-profit body likes to risk offending such a determined litigator as the church. Even Google, the search engine, removed links to and similar sites last March, faced with similar wide-ranging copyright claims from the church's lawyers.

In the Google case, the decision caused an outcry, and the company soon unblocked the links (indeed, today, is the second site Google suggests if you search for "Scientology"). No lawsuit has followed. Yet the church continues to put legal pressure on smaller websites, internet service providers and even online booksellers to suppress dissent. And each time one of its targets succumbs, another blow is dealt to free debate.

Now this could just be the solution to congestion charging. Moller International, an aircraft-engineering firm based in California, is boasting about a product it expects to hit the market in 2006. The Skycar, a rocket-shaped car straight out of Thunderbirds, is apparently "the first and only feasible, personally affordable, personal vertical takeoff and landing vehicle the world has ever seen".

Moller claims to have spent $100 million (£64 million) developing a four-passenger version, which, it says, can cruise comfortably at 350mph (563kph), taking off and landing vertically on a small area of road. You can have some fun with the video demonstration on its website (, but start saving now: if it goes into mass production, this "volantor" will set you back around £50,000. Plus, of course, anything that Ken Livingstone manages to levy on top.

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