WHEN EARTHLINK Network Inc. joined forces with long distance carrier Sprint last month, the deal created a flurry of publicity. EarthLink, a Pasadena-based Internet service provider, had already embarked on a campaign to lure converts from industry giant America Online and was establishing itself as one of the fastest-growing and most aggressive ISPs in the nation.
But while analysts marveled at EarthLink's phenomenal growth--including a stock price that has quadrupled since it was first offered 14 months ago--an entirely different take on the deal was being expressed on the Internet. In the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, the discussion focused on Sky Dayton, EarthLink's 26-year-old chairman, who founded the company in 1994.
Dayton is a vocal follower of the Church of Scientology who in the early days surrounded himself with upper management and private financiers who were also Scientologists. His personal Web page is punctuated with a quote from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard: "Communication is the solvent for all things."
As the company has grown, EarthLink executives have tried to distance the company from its Scientology roots, and for good reason. Unlike other religions, Scientology has earned a reputation for dragging ISPs into court for alleged copyright violations committed by private subscribers, something which electronic-privacy advocates believe could erode free discourse on the Net.
Following the debate are some noted Scientology critics, who have posted Web pages providing evidence of the connection. San Diego resident Deirdre Saoirse is behind EarthLink.net and Scientology: The Links, which contains email text from an EarthLink employee who described the company as "scn-owned" and traces the Scientology organizations that once registered their Web pages through EarthLink. According to InterNic, most of those have switched their affiliations from earthlink.net to scientology.net.
Watching from his home in Oregon and posting the occasional tidbit to the Web is Robert Vaughn Young. Young says he spent almost 20 years in Scientology, serving as the organization's chief of public relations and managing its vast information apparatus.
Today, Young writes articles attacking Scientology. Quill, the monthly magazine of the Society for Professional Journalists, published a Young-penned how-to for getting information out of the secretive organization.
Young believes that Scientology's access to the management of an ISP like EarthLink raises privacy issues for EarthLink subscribers. On one posting he warned, "now we have an ISP that works by Hubbard's practices."
Young directed some of the information-gathering on Scientology's critics that he says still goes on today.
"That should be of concern to all people," Young wrote. "These policies are still in place, and an ISP is a lot easier way to read someone's mail than breaking and entering."
While its critics claim Scientology is a threat to free speech on the Net, the organization's representatives insist the Church of Scientology is merely a religion defending copyrighted material.
Kirsten Kappos, EarthLink vice president for corporate communications, says Dayton's religion "has nothing to do with EarthLink" and should be of no more concern than it would be if he were a Catholic or a Jew.
LIKE JOHN TRAVOLTA, Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley, Dayton is a Scientology star. Visible, young, smart and successful, Dayton attended the Delphian School in Oregon as a teenager, a boarding school based on Scientology principles of education. After he graduated at 16, he completed what he calls a "secular post-school management course," also based on Scientology principles.
Scientology is a religious faith founded 44 years ago by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The church, headquartered in Hollywood, believes that man's spiritual problems stem from an intergalactic holocaust 75 million years ago.
Followers of the faith study the writings of Hubbard and other sacred texts. Unlike the Koran or the Bible, however, the sacred texts of Scientology are not available at the library or at a mainstream bookstore. The church considers the texts "trade secrets" that are only to be viewed by followers who have achieved a certain level of understanding of the church's philosophies.
In fact, all of these "scriptures" have been trademarked, just as though they were business secrets, by an arm of the church called the Religious Technology Center.
The Internet has posed a threat to the secrecy of Scientology's texts, allowing anyone with a computer and a modem to broadcast information globally with the touch of a key. Several former ministers and executives of Scientology who have left the church have done just that.
In the mid-'90s, Scientology unleashed a flurry of lawsuits in an effort to protect its secret documents from widespread distribution on the Internet. The organization got court injunctions, raided private homes with federal marshals and sued individuals for disseminating the organization's copyrighted material.
In 1996, a San Jose-based ISP, Netcom On-Line Communication Services, was sued by the Church of Scientology, which claimed that one of Netcom's subscribers posted excerpts from Scientology's copyrighted texts to the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. Netcom and the church settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The church's case against Dennis Erlich, the former Scientology minister who allegedly posted the texts, is pending.
Civil libertarians and Internet free-speech activists feared that a victory in court by the Church of Scientology would mean ISPs would be viewed as publishers of information rather than pipelines for information. The Internet has always worked from the idea that it functions like the telephone company and is therefore not legally responsible for what goes over the wire. The Scientology case, many feared, would force ISPs to take on the obligations of newspaper publishers and editors.
In that scenario, an ISP would be obligated to monitor the private electronic communication of its members in order to keep from being sued.
Janet Weiland, a spokeswoman for the church, says the Netcom suit merely set a precedent for what she calls "notice and take-down." That is, if an ISP is notified that a copyright infringement has occurred, it is obligated to immediately remove the documents.
But Barry Steinhardt, director of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, says even that precedent threatens to put ISPs in the position of judge and jury in deciding to tamper or pry into members' electronic communication any time anyone alleges copyright infringement.
"Those are complicated legal judgments that ISPs shouldn't have to make," Steinhardt says. The Church of Scientology "has a very elastic view of what the copyright laws cover. It has used those trademark laws as an ax to chop down their critics. I think it is wholly inappropriate for them to threaten ISPs."
Steinhardt notes that if EarthLink subscribes to the "notice and take-down" principle, it would be obligated to pry into the communications of an earthlink.net user simply because the allegation was made that copyright is being infringed.
EarthLink, like other ISPs, explains its rules for use in its Acceptable Use Policy: "EarthLink reserves the right to remove any materials that are in EarthLink's sole discretion, potentially illegal, could subject EarthLink to liability or violate this Acceptable Use Policy."
FactNet's links to current Scientologists.
Sky Dayton's personal homepage.
EARTHLINK MADE NEWS last month when it took on AOL directly, launching a "Get Out of AOL Free" campaign, offering to waive the $25 setup fee for AOL "graduates." The move came as AOL announced it was raising its flat access fee from $19.95 to $21.95.
"EarthLink is very aggressive in consumer business," says Barbara Ells, market analyst at Zona Research. "It was the only ISP that made great waves after the AOL price increase."
Ells says she didn't know about EarthLink's connections to Scientology.
"From outsider looking at the company I don't see any indication of that kind of influence," she says. A competing ISP, Mindspring, Ells says, was founded by born-again Christians.
"I wouldn't invest in or use or recommend EarthLink until and unless they make it quite clear in a position statement that they have severed all ties with Scientology--that's the ethical thing to do," posts Martin Hunt, a former Scientologist.
Others believe that the association is a thing of the past.
"They used the Scientology management style at the beginning, but it was dumped," Tilman Hausherr posts. "Probably even the most deluded Scientologists realize that you can't run an ISP like a Scientology org."
Even with its notable growth--EarthLink now claims 600,000 members--the company is still well behind industry giants like America Online, with 11 million members and CompuServe with two million, and just trailing AT&T with 900,000.
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