Geeks in retreat

Mar 21, 2001 at 12:00 am

It wasn’t supposed to happen here.

Last week, freewheeling Web forum Slashdot ( — longtime champion of open-source software and other forms of unrestricted information on the Net — censored a post to its popular online discussion board. The reason? A cease-and-desist letter from the Church of Scientology, which objected when a Slashdot user posted the church’s copyrighted material to a discussion thread.

“We need to choose our battles, and this isn’t one we want to have,” wrote Slashdot founder and Michigan resident Rob Malda in a carefully worded statement posted to the site last Friday. Malda and his editors removed the copyrighted material, a first for the 4-year old Web site which had in the past staunchly defended its users’ rights to express themselves freely. “It’s a bad precedent and a blow for freedom of speech that we all share in this forum,” added Malda, “But this simply doesn’t look like a case we can win.”

Malda may very well be right. The incident is yet another example of how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is being used to squelch free speech online. “Our lawyers tell us that it appears to be a violation of copyright law,” noted Malda in his statement, “And under the terms of the DMCA, we must remove it.” The DMCA states that copyrighted material must be “expeditiously” removed from a Web site once written notice has been served by the copyright holder.

When the DMCA was passed in 1998, it enacted sweeping, broad protections for copyright holders in the online arena — even threatening legitimate uses, say some free-speech advocates. “Because the DMCA only permits exemption under a narrow set of circumstances,” noted Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Robin Gross last year in an open letter to the U.S. Copyright Office, “it tips copyright’s traditional balance overwhelmingly in favor of copyright holders at the expense of free expression, fair use, and innovation.”

So far, court challenges to the DMCA have followed this logic. Last August, a New York judge ordered journalist Eric Corley to stop posting — or even linking to — software that allows users to play back DVDs on their PCs. The ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals next month.

By the weekend, the Web was aflame with discussion about the Slashdot incident. “As we all know, freedom of speech does not exist in this country,” wrote SonnicJohnny on Slashdot in an impassioned response to Malda’s statement. “I find this very worrying for Slashdot,” added Euroderf, “They should have resisted all impulses to tamper with the site.” Others were a bit more understanding: “I wouldn’t mess with the Church of Scientology,” wrote MightyCow on “They have a long arm and an even longer memory.”

Indeed, the Church of Scientology has a dramatic history of relentlessly protecting its intellectual material – online and in print. In 1995, the church sued the Washington Post — MT fact checkers, be warned! — for reprinting 46 words of secret doctrine. (The church lost.) The church’s legal team also tried to shut down alt.religion.scientology from the Net’s public Usenet newsgroup section, citing trademark violations in using the Scientology name.

Many religions are eager to spread the gospel. But the Church of Scientology’s teachings are not given away like free Gideon’s Bibles. For the higher-level stuff, disciples must pay. (The material removed from Slashdot apparently contained information about Xenu, a space alien who appears prominently in more advanced Scientology scriptures.)

Even more unusual is a little-known fact: This isn’t the first time a church has successfully fought to remove religious content from the Web. In 1999, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sued to have mere links to copyrighted religious doctrine removed from a Web site that was critical of the religion. Inexplicably, the church won.

In the midst of all this religious legal furor, Slashdot’s acquiescence has come as quite a surprise to the information-wants-to-be-free zealots who frequent the site. Especially considering Slashdot’s radical history — last year, Microsoft sent Slashdot a similar love letter, demanding copyrighted material be removed in accordance with the DMCA. In an eloquently worded response that was also posted to the site, Slashdot flat-out refused.

Still, there may be a hidden agenda in Slashdot’s uncharacteristic concession to the Scientologists. In addition to acknowledging the censored message, Malda’s online statement also includes a comprehensive set of links to Web sites that are critical of the Scientology movement. Several of these Web sites reprint what purports to be the entire censored text — space aliens included. “Try a Google search,” suggests Malda — and then he provides a direct link to such a query.

But if the Church of Scientology’s litigious record is any indication, they may decide to sue over these links too. Such a response could set up an interesting legal showdown over the legality of linking — one in which Slashdot could play an important role. Conspiracy theories aside, perhaps that’s what Slashdot wanted all along.

Either way, the truth is out there (at least, for the time being). That is, if you know where to look.

Adam Druckman wanders the Web for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]