Major Crisis On Usenet

by Jon Noring

The crisis is a massive, ongoing, vertical spamming ( Vertical Spamming, for those who don't know, is when somebody posts a huge number of posts to a single newsgroup in a very short period of time. It's purpose is usually to shut the newsgroup down by making it useless to carry on any meaningful discussion.) of a Usenet newsgroup never before seen at this scale, and its purpose is to completely drown out regular discussion on a newsgroup of public interest, alt.religion.scientology.

The evidence points to the "Church" of Scientology as being behind this massive, incessant, carpet bombing. In the next few sections I'll outline what's currently happening and provide the evidence -- you make up your own mind who is behind the assault on the newsgroup, and its importance to you. No matter who is really behind it, it is a crisis that needs to be dealt with by everybody in the Usenet community because it concerns the important matter of freedom of expression. If we fail to understand the spam's long-term ramifications and fail to take the appropriate action, we seriously risk losing our freedom to express our thoughts and beliefs on Usenet. After all, if the massive spam succeeds to shut down one newsgroup in order to stifle critical discussion, then it will set a dangerous precedent and embolden other organizations and groups that likewise cannot tolerate open discussion to follow in the same path. We must prevent this.

We must draw the line clearly in the sand -- now!

And after reading this, if you agree with my assessment of who is behind the spamming, and see the threat it poses to freedom of expression, one thing you can do right now is to sign (via e-mail) a statement of protest directed towards the "Church" of Scientology. It is a very easy yet effective way to express your opinion. Details for submitting your signature are given at the end of this post. NOTE: I will NOT publicly release, nor send to the "Church" of Scientology, the names or e-mail addresses of those who sign, just tally the total count, verifed by an independent third party, probably someone in the news media. Please do consider signing the statement and ask others to do the same. I'd like to get 10,000 sigs, but 1000 would send a clear message to the "Church" of Scientology organization that their actions towards Usenet and the Internet are totally unacceptable to the Usenet community, and pose a serious threat to freedom of expression on the Internet. (Note that many of the participants of a.r.s. are former Scientologists who still want to practice the *religion* of Scientology, but free from the iron control of the current "Church" of Scientology organization -- thus one could strongly argue that their freedom of religion is also being hampered by the spam attack, so the issues go beyond freedom of expression.) And do forward this post to anybody who may be interested, including the news media. One of the best solutions to this crisis is media attention.

The Situation as of 27 May 1996

In the last week, there have been several thousand (and rapidly approaching 10,000!) short posts swamping the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology (a.r.s.) by a person or persons unknown. They are coming from several accounts, most of them forged or bogus, and when the account is closed by its site administrator based on complaints, the flood begins anew elsewhere. In at least one instance a mail-to-news gateway has been used, necessitating the administrator to close all posting to a.r.s. That one gateway has received, last we heard, 886 attempted posts by the spammer within a 28 hour period (which fortunately never reached their intended destination -- but thousands of others have.) And at this moment, while you read this post, the spam continues unabated from new accounts. Almost a thousand of the same type of post have been made to a.r.s. within the last 24 hours. There is no indication it will stop, and has actually stepped up the last two days as the spam is now coming from multiple sources.

The Evidence Who May Be Begind The Robo-Spamming

It is unknown the person or persons who are behind this. However, the evidence strongly points to the "Church" of Scientology (CoS) as the culprit. Here is the evidence:

1) All the posts are supportive of Scientology, and each one is a short snippet taken from their copyrighted book "What is Scientology", which has also been placed on their Web site.

2) They all use a similar "boiler-plate" format, including a similar preamble: "Many falsehoods and inaccurate statements regarding several aspects of the religion of Scientology have been observed on ars..."

3) The use of semi-anonymous "throw-away" accounts somewhat follows the same pattern used recently to cancel posts containing portions of CoS' "secret" scriptures, and which used the boiler-plate statement "Cancelled due to copyright infringement" as the justification for the clearly illegal cancels.

4) Most of the materials being spammed have a prominent CoS copyright notice. Since CoS has shown by their actions within the last year to be very sensitive to unauthorized recopying of their materials, their silence on what is now happening is clear tacit approval of the massive spamming now taking place. In essence, by their inaction to do or say anything to stop the spam, they are thus tacitly *authorizing* the spam attack, whether they instigated it or not (though I believe they did).

5) In the last 1.5 years, internal documents from CoS have been revealed detailing such a plan to overwhelm the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology with their own posts. CoS has not disavowed or refuted these documents. They are in the file 'spamplan.txt', which can be downloaded via in URL form: ftp://ftp.netcom.com/pub/no/noring/spamplan.txt

6) A recent post, supposedly based on intelligence information from inside CoS, but so far unverified, stated that the spam is part of a Scientology program to so overwhelm the newsgroup 'alt.religion.scientology' with 'theta' (their term for 'safe' ideas) that it would be safe to allow loyal rank-and-file Scientologists to begin accessing the Internet, particulary their new Web site (up to now they've not been allowed to access the Internet because of the 'entheta', their term for 'unsafe' ideas.) Even if this turns out not to be one of the reasons for the spam attack, it is entirely plausible based on assessment by those who are knowledgeable with how the CoS organization thinks and operates.

The Ramifications To Usenet If This Ccontinues Unstopped

Already, discussion on a.r.s. has been affected, and if it continues without adjustment by the Usenet community, will seriously hamper the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints on that newsgroup. The ramifications of this to all of Usenet as a whole is clear: if the spammers get away with this, then what will prevent other organizations from anonymously using the same tactic to squelch unfavorable discussion on other unmoderated newsgroups? Thus, the Usenet community needs to be aware that the spam attack has grave ramifications to freedom of expression to Usenet above and beyond just the Scientology newsgroup. It should be considered as serious a threat to free expression as the Exon CDA. And in some ways it is even worse since it will also affect the integrity and viability of Usenet itself. It is very important that we get concerned and fight it any way we can. Get involved, even if you're a lurker or a new person on Usenet!

What Can Be Done?

There are several things that can be done to handle the crisis. Some of them are now being employed by concerned net citizens who are in a position to do so. However, for the reasons I'll give, they are not adequate enough, which makes this, in my opinion, a crisis. If you have other ideas for how to deal with this, do post them. Let's keep discussion level-headed and avoid silly ad hominem attacks and the like. This is a serious situation. The following are listed in no particular order of importance. Consider it a partial list only.

1) IGNORE THE SPAM -- With most newsreaders, this is simply not a solution. When there are 1000 spam posts in 24 hours, like we saw today, the reader simply has trouble locating the discussion threads, no matter how sophisticated the newsreader. And if the reader doesn't locate the legitimate discussion, they will not contribute to any discussion, and poof, no more discussion. New subscribers to a.r.s., most of whom want to get all sides of the issue, won't even participate when they see the huge numbers of single-sided robo-posts with no discussion. And for those who must download all the posts before reading them (or even kill-filing them), the spam will most likely force the user to unsubscribe from and no longer participate in the newsgroup. Freedom of Expression has thus been curtailed because of the massive spam.

2) KILL FILES -- The usual reply to a problem like this is "kill files". However, it is clear that kill files will not work to prevent grave impact on the newsgroup because: a) Many users today don't even have kill file capability (unix-based newsreaders are rapidly being pushed into the minority), and for those who do, only a fraction of them have the computer savvy necessary to implement it. And for those who pay for their news one way or another, it becomes expensive for the kill file to do its thing (this is especially onerous for those who have to actually download all the posts, several megabytes per day, through their modem *before* they can even "kill file" them). b) Kill files work by finding posts having certain identifiable attributes in the header or message body, such as the From: address -- but as the spam on a.r.s. shows, we've got a moving target that will resist kill files. Any organization with enough money can keep getting throw-away accounts that cannot be traced to the organization. They can also alter the wording to foil kill-files searching for words in the message body. Thus, those using kill files will continually see unwanted SPAM getting through their filters, requiring constant modification of their kill files, which means their kill files will get so unwieldy that they take longer to work effectively. The end result is that it may cause many to simply give up on the newsgroup rather than trying to fight the onslaught using kill files. It's like using a spray bottle to fight a raging forest fire. And don't forget the new people in the future who will visit the newsgroup. Unless they are unusually motivated or knowledgeable, they will judge the newsgroup's purpose based on the content of the spam and not the real discussion. Thus kill files won't even be considered by them since from their reckoning the newsgroup's purpose has already been decided (and their kill files will be empty to start out!) Only those already established on the newsgroup will consider using kill files. Thus, those who flippantly believe that kill files are adequate to solve the problem are being short-sighted and even selfish, and not considering the effect on new subscribers to the newsgroup. Free expression is destroyed when new subscribers turn away because of the spam.

3) MODERATION -- There are many who believe that a solution to a lot of problems on Usenet is to require all newsgroups to be moderated. The arguments for this are many, but few realize that moderation can have a profound stifling of free expression for certain subjects. It also puts the burden on moderators, who are now vulnerable to attack, and any organization which does not like discussion on a certain moderated newsgroup can put pressure on the moderator. This, of course, would be a threat to the free expression we now enjoy on Usenet. And it would take a while for moderation to be implemented even if the Usenet community decides now that it should be done.

4) HUNT DOWN THE SPAMMERS -- This is being done, and should continue to be done to make life miserable for the spammers, but at the bottom line it so far has not reduced, and certainly not eliminated, the spamming. The reason for this is that the spammers seem to have a virtually unlimited supply of new accounts. They are probably now acquiring new accounts as fast as they are being pulled. There is no reason why this can't go on for months or even indefinitely.

5) CANCEL THE SPAM POSTS -- This certainly should and is now being done. However, because we have a moving target, and thousands of posts, issuing cancels is not a trivial exercise. In addition, many sites don't honor cancels. And, finally, the spammer can simply overcome the cancels by continuing to repost over and over again as fast as the canceler can do its thing. The delay time between the arriving of a spam post and the effect of cancel will guarantee enough posts will hang around to clog up the newsgroup and render it nearly useless for discussion.

6) LAW-ENFORCEMENT/LEGAL ACTION -- This spamming is clearly a disruption of electronic data communications, and in the U.S. may be a Federal offense (if an organization is behind it, it could also be RICOable or lead to a class action lawsuit). But the DoJ/FBI will not investigate this until enough ISP's themselves request it -- they've shown in prior complaints from individuals to not be very interested in investigating. And legal action cannot be taken until you get the conclusive evidence required to take the spammers to court. Even though we're sure who's behind the spam, it cannot easily be proven in court since you have to first find the real people behind the accounts (which is not easy, especially if they keep moving around -- it'd take the FBI to do this), and then when you find them, to connect them to any organization (this can also be very hard.)

Conclusion

It is my opinion that the massive spamming on a.r.s. is a major threat to Usenet, and the Usenet community needs to be very concerned. The hopefully partial list of solutions I outlined above (do you have more ideas?) may not be adequate to stop the spam and protect a.r.s. from oblivion. However, if we as a cyber community join together as one voice, we may be able to force a resolution in favor of freedom of expression for all. I offer one way in the next section by which you can raise your voice, and it is as easy as sending a blank e-mail message. Of course, I urge you to take other actions as well if you are in a position to do so. Become involved on alt.religion.scientology for starters! There's still good discussion taking place, though you'll have to wade through the huge piles of spam.

SIGN (via e-mail) A STATEMENT PROTESTING CoS SPAM!

If you are now concerned by what's happening, I offer one way by which you can do something to show your concern. I've drafted a short statement protesting CoS spam which you can sign via e-mail if you agree with it. After a month or so, an independent third-party (maybe someone in the news media) will verify my tally of the signatures and the number will be posted, as well as sent to the news media and possibly even law enforcement. Of course, CoS will see the tally of signatures since their intelligence organization continually monitors the Internet. Here's the protest statement: "We, the undersigned, looking at the evidence, have concluded that the Church of Scientology (or one of its many affiliated organizations) is officially behind the massive, highly disruptive and immoral spamming of the newsgroup 'alt.religion.scientology'. It is a serious and grave threat to freedom of expression on the Internet. We therefore call upon the Church of Scientology to immediately cease this action, to publicly disavow it, and to work with the Internet community to prevent this from reoccuring." If you agree with this statement, send e-mail, no later than June 30, 1996, to:

petition-1@netcom.com

Before sending a message to the above e-mail address, you MUST read ALL following "fine print". If you don't, your signature may be lost or I simply cannot or will not use it. Also, if you forward this post, please keep all the information (above and below) intact! If you fear retribution for your signature, please read item #8 below -- you have nothing to fear as your signature will be kept confidential.

1) This is NOT a vote. If you don't agree with the above statement, your only recourse is NOT to send e-mail to the above address. Or, to put it another way, sending an e-mail message to the above address, no matter what your views or what you say in the message, is an AUTOMATIC AGREEMENT with the statement. You have been forewarned.

2) Each reply sent to the above e-mail address will be authenticated by an automatic mailing back to you (it will also emphasize point 1 above). This is to prevent forged e-mail addresses being used to try to either inflate the tally or to discredit the signature gathering process.

3) Leave the e-mail message blank -- I won't read what you write anyway. If you have a point to make, it is better you post it to the relevant Usenet newsgroups (and which I highly encourage -- the more public discussion on this matter, the better.)

4) Note that in the signature e-mail address the character after the '-' is a 'one' and not an 'ell'.

5) Your e-mail address will be extracted from the From: lines in the header block of your message. So be careful which account you use. It is recommended you avoid using any government and military accounts -- using your work account may also be unwise depending on your terms of agreement with your employer providing the account.

6) Please only sign once (but do ask your friends to also sign it!)

7) The e-mail address to send your signature "petition-1@netcom.com' is NOT the same as my personal e-mail address. If you do send your agreement to my personal e-mail address it'll probably get lost. If you don't get an automatic reply within a few days of submitting your signature, it may mean your signature got lost. And if you try to sign by simply replying to this post in your newsreader without changing the To: line to the e-mail address "petition-1@netcom.com", your reply will not be sent to the right place! In summary, be very careful which e-mail address you use -- it MUST be 'petition-1@netcom.com' and not any other !!!!!

8) To protect those who do e-mail sign the statement, I will not post the list of e-mail signatures, nor will they be released to CoS nor any other party except the person who will independently verify the tally, who will be sworn to secrecy on the matter (if it is a person in the news media, they will be covered under Press protection). I will keep the signatures triply DES-encrypted on any media I store them on and the encrypted list will also be kept by another person I trust (but who will not have the decryption keys). I will only further reveal the names on the list if I receive a valid court order to do so. The list will not be used for any junk-mail, though I may e-mail those on the list in the future should any *major* event occur related to Scientology activity that has grave and profound ramifications for the Internet, such as this spam attack. -->

AND DO ADD A LINK FROM YOUR WEB SITE TO THE SCIENTOLOGY CRITICS PAGES!

There are many great sites on the Web that summarize the many attacks so far on the Internet community by CoS, most of them motivated, in my opinion, by a desire to suppress all discussion critical of them. These sites also talk about Scientology in general which makes for a very sobering "wake up" experience for those not familiar with this controversial organization. The primary Web site describing the attack on the Internet is by Ron Newman: http://www.cybercom.net/~rnewman/scientology/home.html (You can also go to Scientology's official Web site from the above link, so you can read the other side of the issues -- CoS refuses to reciprocate, though.) Also check out these other three Web sites which, in turn, have links to many Web sites which discuss Scientology from many perspectives: http://home.pacific.net.sg/~marina/misc/arshtml.htm (great index) http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~av282/ http://www.demon.net/castle/x/clam/index.html It is IMPORTANT if you do add a link to one or more of the above sites, or any other Scientology-related site, to inform me when you have done so. That way, at some future time, if the links change in any way, I can quicky contact you with updated information. Our goal is to get at least 10,000 links, and preferably 100,000, world-wide -- please help us -- link to one of the above sites today!

FINAL WORDS

Hurry, please e-mail your signature to the protest statement right now! And be sure to send it to petition-1@netcom.com, and NOT to my e-mail address as seen in my .sig below! Thank you. Jon Noring -- OmniMedia Electronic Books | URL: http://www.awa.com/library/omnimedia 9671 S. 1600 West St. | Anonymous FTP: South Jordan, UT 84095 | ftp.awa.com /pub/softlock/pc/products/OmniMedia 801-253-4037 | E-mail: omnimedia@netcom.com ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Join the Electronic Books Mailing List (EBOOK-List) Today! Just send e-mail to majordomo@aros.net, and put the following line in the body of the message: subscribe ebook-list

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