Church of Scientology Censors
Net Access for Members
From kids to cults:
As we all know, the Internet can sometimes come up with surprises. Who amongst us has not typed a few words into a search engine, only to see among the hits the sort of links we might be a little concerned about our children reading?
This is due to the fact that a) there is no central censorship of the 'net, and b) unlike, say, libraries, where you have to make an effort to go and get out a book, open it and read it, web pages are delivered to your PC immediately.
So it is quite natural that parents of children with net access might want to use some additional means of filtering what they can see, in order to prevent them from accessing sites or information that we do not want them to. For this reason, software designed to filter net access on the basis of a number of keywords has been available for some time, including packages such as CyberSitter and Net Nanny.
There has already been some controversy over such packages: in particular, CyberSitter, which was produced in association with a fundamentalist Christian group, was so restrictive that even accessing a site such as http://www.sussex.com was refused, because the URL contains the word "sex". More outrage was inevitable when it was discovered that CyberSitter was also filtering out sites with absolutely no pornographic or offensive content, apparently on the basis that they dealt with issues of gay rights.
But at least such tools are designed to be installed voluntarily by someone in a position to make an informed decision about what they want to do.
In contrast, a recent development publicised on the Internet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, a rallying point for critics of Scientology, raises serious questions regarding the use of such tools. In 1998, the Church of Scientology started to issue its members with a compact disk, on which was installed a number of pieces of software, including Netscape Navigator. This CD was provided to church adherents under colour of providing them with Internet access software and a web page design tool in order that they could create "personalised" web pages and surf the net. The documentation for this CD also stated that:
"(6) agree to use the specific Internet Filter Program that CSI has provided to you which allows you freedom to view other sites on Dianetics, Scientology or its principals without threat of accessing sites deemed to be using the Marks or Works in an unauthorized fashion or deemed to be improper or discreditable to the Scientology religion".
What most people who installed Netscape Navigator from this CD would not realise was that a censorware program had been incorporated into the installation process. This program gives no indication of its presence on the system, and offers no means of de-installation.
So what did the Church of Scientology want to "protect" its members from, and how did they go about doing it?
First of all, the CoS censorware filters out a number of well-known critical sites, by making it impossible to connect to URLs with certain combinations of characters in them. Secondly, certain words are filtered out of the data stream and replaced with spaces. Were those words to be solely to do with the aspects of the CoS scriptures that they claim they are protecting their members from, then perhaps the software could be argued to be "protecting" members. But it goes a lot further than that: in tests, it has been shown that the filter blocks words like "Lisa McPherson" (the woman who died at CoS HQ in 1995, after having been locked in a room for seventeen days), as well as the email ID's and web page addresses of many well-known critics and ex-members of the organisation. The censorware program also interferes with the ability of the individual on whose computer it is running to use IRC: if certain words appear on an IRC channel to which the computer is connected, the net censorware software causes the computer to be summarily kicked from the channel.
This clearly goes much farther than a mere attempt to protect its members from reading material that the CoS claims it is against their religion to read, and enters the realm of outright censorship.
How many CoS members who have installed this CD are aware that every aspect of their net use is now subject to censorship via a piece of software that they never asked for, and have no means of removing?