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both sides of the dispute believe they are acting in the public good.
The action centers on a single Usenet newsgroup: alt.religion. scientology. It also includes Web sites, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) discussions, and even court cases, but it was in this newsgroup that all the important connections began. By all accounts, alt.religion.scientology was never exactly a quiet newsgroup, or even intended to be so. It was created on July 17, 1991, by Scott Goehring, whose former wife was a Scientologist. Goehring says he started the newsgroup half as a joke and half as a place to discuss the truth about the organization. Many alt groups start with a forged message, and this one was no exception: Goehring forged the signature "email@example.com" on the "newgroup" message. The signature is itself a joke: "miscaviage" is a misspelling for CoS leader David Miscavige, and the Flag and Sea "Orgs" (for organizations) are two of the most important Scientology branches.
From the beginning, the group attracted both skeptics and believers. While the two groups never came close to agreement, they managed to coexist in the sort of tense balance the Net seems to specialize in. They argued rabidly about the scientific underpinnings of the E-meter and the medical validity, or lack thereof, of a Scientology treatment for new recruits and drug addicts called the "Purif" (short for "Purification rundown"), which involves large doses of niacin and long sojourns in steam baths, thought by Hubbard to detoxify the body. Between arguments they hammered out a more or less stable agreement to have multiple FAQs to introduce newcomers to both sides of the hot tub. While each side has criticized the other's writings, there have been no serious attempts to interfere with these FAQs, which persist to this day.
People who frequent alt.religion.scientology generally fall into one of four types. The first two are obvious: critics and CoS supporters. In early 1994, these were a high percentage of the group's membership, but their relatively reasoned debates have largely been drowned out in the increasingly polarized and contentious years since. Third is the Free Zone, former Scientologists who hate the CoS but love Hubbard's teachings, known as "the tech" (for technology), and want to continue using them independently. Fourth is the group of net.defenders who started arriving in mid-1994 in response to reports of what was happening on the newsgroup; they represent the Net's immune response.
In an ordinary newsgroup, this sort of mix works. You can have, for example, Microsoft customers, employees, former staffers, and critics all in one newsgroup without anyone's getting raided for posting the copyrighted source code to Windows, while others cheer them on (although there is an I-hate-Microsoft spirit in the land). The trouble is that when you mix current and former Scientologists with strident critics, someone is bound to mention that portions of Hubbard's writings that have been made public by former Scientologists allege that those who leave Scientology or who criticize it may be dubbed "Suppressive Persons" (SPs) and become fair game for all types of harassment.
Sometime around 1992, the newsgroup began attracting posters from the Free Zone. One of the best known, Homer Wilson Smith, interviewed in early 1995 by email, said initially he was too scared to post anything himself. He was inspired to start posting by anonymous Usenet articles signed only "Electra," which went into great detail about "the tech" and contained the kind of productive material he'd been hoping to find. Electra disappeared from the Net by the end of 1992, but shortly afterwards Smith received through the mail two floppy disks full of her articles, from which he went on publishing excerpts. Smith, however, was unhappy about the overall content of alt.religion.scientology and wanted a newsgroup where he and others could seriously discuss the tech. Accordingly, he created a second newsgroup, alt.clearing.technology, where relatively reasoned discussion continues today.
(Occasionally, in older guides to the Internet, you'll see a note to the effect that alt.clearing.technology is for discussing acne cures. This was another Usenet joke--Chris Schafmeister, a graduate student in molecular biology at the University of California at San Francisco, sent out a newgroup message to this effect.
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