Today, President Obama announced the Cyber Czar from the White House. His intentions are to find somebody who will crack down on Internet hazards such as phishing and spyware. However, he intends to keep the internet as open and free as it's ever been.
So one might turn a skeptical eye to the recent decision by Wikipedia to ban Scientology and its members from editing Scientology-related Wikipedia pages. Should the user-edited encyclopedia make such a bold move and ban an entire religion from editing its pages? Isn't that some form of bigotry or religious intolerance? Wouldn't that undermine "open and free"?
Well... there's religious bigotry, and then there's having a proper ground for banning the religion as a whole from editing pages. Personally, I think that Wikipedia has a pretty good reason for banning Scientology from editing its pages. It has as good a reason for preventing Scientologists from editing the pages as it does cracking down on Scientology critics.
Before I continue, let me lay my bias on the line: I consider myself a critic of the Church of Scientology. After the Internet group called Anonymous started protesting Scientology, I started following the protests and doing some research, and ultimately, I discovered more unfavorable things about Scientology than favorable things. In fact, I found many favorable things about Scientology were almost dishonest.
However, this diary is not about "Scientology is an evil money-grubbing cult, ergo they don't deserve to edit pages!" or "Scientology disconnects people from their families, ergo they don't deserve to edit pages!" or even "Scientology is a fad religion and a sham, ergo they don't deserve to edit pages!" I have at least a bit more credibility than that, despite my bias.
The level of intimacy Scientology seems to have with Wikipedia is hardly surprising. I've done some research for a paper in my college about Scientology and the Internet, so I consider myself at least decently well-read about it. One thing that I noticed about the Church is that it is almost entirely focused on a positive public image. When the religion isn't shoving people onto the e-meter and auditing them, it's looking for ways to show Scientology in a positive light. (It may need it after the South Park episode, but this has always been a recurring pattern.) They've been almost ruthless in cracking down on various parts of the Internet, claiming copyright violation and the like, leaving many critics (such as Mark Bunker) to claim that it's an attempt to eliminate the negative views.
This much is obvious if you go to Scientology's YouTube page: Ratings are disabled on all of the videos, and in the past, even comments and related videos were disabled. Scientology also has a habit of flagging YouTube videos that are critical of them, citing a copyright violation. It's a pattern that doesn't seem to affect videos that are pro-Scientology. This is hardly surprising, as Scientology is very protective of its copyright on the Internet. After Wikileaks released Scientology's "Bibles" online, for instance, Scientology threatened the website with legal action. Although that case does legally stand on its own two legs, other cases are a touch more dubious. For instance, the Usenet group alt.religion.Scientology, a group that features a large amount of posts critical to Scientology, has come under attack, as top officials of Scientology have asked the group to be removed for varying reasons, from logical (members have posted copyrighted materials on the site) to nonsensical (the group name uses the copyrighted phrase "Scientology," which is apparently a copyright violation).
It may be a stretch to assume that Scientology abuses its claims of copyright protection in order to squelch a negative view of the religion, especially in light of the Wikileaks case, but the way Scientology wields its copyright claims makes many critics, such as myself, raise their eyebrows. Even without the claims of copyright, the YouTube channel, and offline examples such as odd requests from Scientology not to be faced with opposing views when they go on talk shows (link goes to a blog post featuring a broadcast of The Phil Donahue Show, in which Phil explains the Scientologists on his show would only come on if nobody opposed them), seem to point to a heavy PR blitz. A company is allowed to advertise, sure, but GE doesn't prevent YouTube users from ratings its commercials and such. And no other religion is so focused on this level of PR, and are often open to criticism. Does Catholicism, for example, have a channel on YouTube, policed or otherwise?
This is why I'm in support of Wikipedia banning Scientology from editing its pages. They have blocked the numerous IP addresses of many Scientology machines and have cracked down on accounts that have seemed to have gone into edit wars with neutral parties. Like many controversial topics, Scientology and all of its various articles have been the focus of many edit wars between Scientologists and their critics. There are plenty of controversial topics surrounding the Church (Lisa McPherson, Disconnect, The Rehabilitation Project Force, just to name a few), and many critics will point their readers to Wikipedia to get the most neutral point of view regarding such controversial topics. Scientology's attempts to edit certain pages could undermine the website's claim for neutrality. Whether banning Scientology will prove to be fruitful, or whether it will simply be a symbolic gesture that Scientologists will be able to circumvent, it's a bold move on behalf of Wikipedia.
That's not to say the critics are much better. While they can often point to sources to back up their controversial claims, such as reports from former Scientologists and the like, many of their edits showcase a clear bias and sometimes are akin to vandalism. (Other such edits include calling Miscavige a "chairmidget" and using links to other pages in order to compare him to Adolf Hitler.) Wikipedia has taken action on the Wikipedia accounts of Scientology critics, such as Tory Christman and David Touretzky, threatening suspension or even bans if they cannot comply with the enforced neutrality policy of Wikipedia. I also support this move, despite siding with these critics when it comes to Scientology as a whole.
Scientology.Org is not a reliable website to obtain Scientology-related information, as it is essentially an advertisement for the religion. Likewise, websites such as Clambake.Org and Xenu.Net do not pretend to be neutral, although they are willing to showcase contrary arguments on their websites and are open to debate. In order to get the most neutral point of view, Wikipedia is, more or less, one's best bet. However, the edit wars between all parties undermine the "neutral" viewpoint, and action had to be taken.
What makes this story unique, and what's turning the focus on Scientology instead of Scientology and its critics, is the fact that this is a religion getting behind this. The level at which Scientology has gotten involved in the edit wars is unprecedented in any other religion. Scientologists are editing Wikipedia and slanting the view of Scientology towards a more positive view while on Scientology-purchased computers. Whether they are doing this in their free time or whether they are being paid to do this is irrelevant. As Wikipedia points out (more succinctly than I ever could), from the HuffPo link:
"The purpose of Wikipedia is to create a high-quality, free-content encyclopedia in an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual respect among contributors," part of the decision read. "Use of the encyclopedia to advance personal agendas - such as advocacy or propaganda and philosophical, ideological or religious dispute - or to publish or promote original research is prohibited."
"Editors who access Wikipedia through an organization's IP address and who edit Wikipedia articles which relate to that organization have a presumptive conflict of interest," it continued. "Regardless of these editors' specific relationship to that organization or function within it, the organization itself bears a responsibility for appropriate use of its servers and equipment. If an organization fails to manage that responsibility, Wikipedia may address persistent violations of fundamental site policies through blocks or bans."
Simply put, action had to be taken.
Read the entire case surrounding Scientology and Wikipedia here.
Edit: Added Wikipedia's statement regarding the ban. My thanks to KroneckerD for pointing it out.
Also added a link to the Wikipedia v. Scientology case as debilitated on Wikipedia, as I intended to put it in the original diary, yet promptly forgot.
Edit II: The link regarding alt.religion.scientology is incorrect. It leads to the story from The Guardian about Wikileaks. The link I meant to post is this one, which leads to ARS's Wikipedia page, specifically the section about the group's removal. Thanks to Bobs Telecaster for calling it to my attention.
(I swear, I do proofread these things!)