Scientology's website was Google bombed, bringing it to the top of search results for "dangerous cult."
Scientologist wage war on a digital battle field

The Church of Scientology rarely sees a lot of respect from the press and general public.  Critics – a group that scales from individual citizens all the way up to entire nations – label it as a cult and unscrupulous enterprise, preying on the minds and pocketbooks of its followers. 

In the United States, however, the controversial religion has, for the most part, avoided outright attack; aside from the occasional tell-all website and snarky TV commentary, it enjoys considerable support from Hollywood and the its followers amongst the public. 

That is, until now. What started with a simple video has now stretched deep into the digital domain, and if the critics are to be believed then the War on Scientology has just begun.

The video, which stars a crazed Tom Cruise, appeared on YouTube late last month.  Intended for internal distribution and leaked by unknown sources, the Cruise video was created by the Church of Scientology to honor Cruise with its “Freedom Medal of Valor,” for his work in exposing a billion people to the Church’s beliefs.  

In the eight-minute clip, Cruise explains his faith in a crazed fervor, interspersing brief statements with fidgeting, maniacal laughter, and wild hand motions. “We are the authorities on getting people off drugs...we can rehabilitate criminals’ way to happiness (sic) … we can bring peace and unite cultures,” he says in one part. “I won't hesitate to put ethics on someone else as I put it ruthlessly on myself … [Scientology is] rough and tumble, it’s wild and wooly.”

Understandably displeased, the Church of Scientology allegedly forced YouTube to remove the video, threatening to sue if it refused.  Not wanting to start a fight with a group known for its penchant for lawsuits, YouTube caved and took the video offline.

Since then, the Cruise video has been parodied several times.

The move earned the ire of hackers and protestors, furious over for what they feel is the Church's suppression of free speech. Protestors claim the YouTube incident is merely the latest chapter in a long history of frivolous lawsuits and copyright/trademark disputes, designed specifically to suppress the proliferation of material that the Church finds embarrassing.

Online, hackers took their own revenge, with the Church’s web presence suffering a series of crippling attacks:  its international website was temporarily taken down, and its U.K. website remained crippled for days.  On a different front, computer guerillas “Google bombed” the Church of Scientology’s official website, bringing it to the top of search results for “dangerous cult.”

Back on YouTube, an activist group calling itself “Anonymous” posted its first online threat against Scientology two weeks ago, citing the Church’s alleged “campaigns of misinformation, suppression of dissent, and litigious nature.” Two more videos have been posted since, all of them featuring stock video of cities, clouds, and landscapes, with the group’s mysterious vendetta read by a computerized voice-over.

In Anonymous’ first video, titled “Message to Scientology” and speaking directly to the Church, the group pledges that it will “expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.”

Whoever Anonymous is – the group claims its members include “lawyers, parents, IT professionals, members of law enforcement, college students, veterinary technicians and more” – it appears serious; Anonymous acknowledges the Church as a serious opponent and notes that “we are prepared for a long, long campaign.” A later video warns Scientologists to beware of February 10th, a date on which Anonymous will launch several protests at Scientology facilities around the world, coordinated by groups on Facebook and YouTube.

Anonymous’ organizers claim they wish to stay incognito for ethical reasons. One protester, explaining the campaign to the The Guardian, stated that he “[didn’t] want them to get a foothold in the UK the same way as they have in other countries. [The Church of Scientology claims] to be a church and a religion but they charge people to attend their sessions and they are a registered trademark – that doesn't strike anyone as a religion.  At the start this was a hacker operation but it is more than that now. Scientologists say it's just a bunch of hacker geeks but that's going to be proved wrong on February 10."

According to organizers, Anonymous started with a “youth movement” among online communities but is now drawing protesters from all walks of life.  It distributes Leaflets throughout the United States, questioning the true nature of Scientology and its tactics.

The Church of Scientology is trying to both downplay the movement and fight back.  It dismisses the protesters and hackers as a “pathetic” collection of “computer geeks.”  Janet Laveau, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in Britain, says that “we don't get into responding to such threats on the internet, particularly anonymous ones.”

According to Laveau, the surge of negative publicity actually created a “surge of interest” in the Scientology, which she hopes will bring many new converts, although it denies forcing YouTube to take down the Cruise video despite numerous reports to the contrary. “These selective and out-of-context excerpts … nevertheless resulted in people searching for and visiting Church of Scientology websites,” says Laveau. “Those wishing to find out the Church of Scientology's views and to gain context of the video have the right to search official Church websites."

In the United States, Scientologists hired an unnamed internet company to defend its sites from attacks and fight back against the hackers. The move was financed in part by a $10 million donation from actress Nancy Cartwright, who voices Bart Simpson.

The Church of Scientology has a long history of waging expensive legal battles to suppress public criticism.  In 2005, the Church lost a 10-year battle in the Netherlands against a number of internet service providers as well as Dutch writer Karin Spaink, who posted numerous revealing documents online revealing alarming, secret teachings of the Church. 

Invented in 1952, The Church of Scientology is the brainchild of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Based around 18 central religious books, Scientology believes that humans came to earth via an all-powerful alien being named “Xenu,” who stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Many accuse Hubbard of maintaining a religious façade for tax and legal purposes, and Hubbard once told Reader’s Digest that "if a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."  Together, the religion’s exotic believes, questionable history, and penchant for secrecy has made for excellent fodder from the Church’s many critics.

Andreas Heldal-Lund, a Norwegian free speech advocate applauds the grassroots movement and says they've “won” the war against scientology.  However, she denounces the internet attacks, stating that “one of the biggest arguments against Scientology is they are a threat to free speech and here they can say people are hitting back at their free speech. It ruins our argument.”

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins
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