The Amazon flack designated to handle the recent Scientology dustup sounded terribly tired by the end of last week. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, and here she was on the phone to the 5,000th journalist wanting the Truth about why Amazon yanked the anti-Scientology book A Piece of Blue Sky from its virtual shelves. After the usual pat generalities (prominently featuring the words "it seemed like a good idea at the time") were covered, she had one plaintive question for me: "So, this Usenet group—what are they saying about us?"
The thing you might not have heard about the Amazon vs. the Scientologists battle is that it happened online—and I don't mean on the Wired News Web site. Instead, we can blame the un-bookstore's latest public relations debacle on the good citizens of alt.religion.scientology, a Usenet newsgroup that has been locked in a jihad with the Church of Scientology since right around the time Eve ate the apple.
The a.r.s. newsgroup suffers from the unique and dubious distinction of being taken very, very seriously by the object of its discussion—not Amazon (obviously), but the Church of Scientology. Back in 1995, the church attempted to remove the newsgroup from Usenet, claiming that the very use of the name violated a Scientology trademark. Subsequently, the church (which claims many of its holy scriptures as trade secrets and thus prohibited from disclosure or even discussion by heathens such as you and me) has flooded the newsgroup with spam designed to push actual discussions into the proverbial bit bucket.
Other Scientology attacks on the Net and its users over the years have included the shuttering of the legendary anon.penet.fi anonymous-remailer service (shuttered under pressure from the Finnish government and a Scientology lawsuit in 1996); harassment, picketing, and raids on the homes of a.r.s. regulars around the world (not to mention sympathetic journalists—oh, bliss!); and lawsuits and extralegal actions against Internet service providers.
Still, the dedicated forge on, as heretics, schismatics, and reformers have done for generations in faiths of every stripe. (Many of the regulars on a.r.s. are former Scientologists, or are "freezone" Scientologists unaffiliated with the church itself.) It was a.r.s. members who noticed the missing text, a.r.s. members who pestered Amazon for answers, a.r.s. members who wouldn't settle for Amazon's shifty-eyed denials of responsibility (despite Amazon's claim that "legal reasons" forced the book's removal from its catalog, there is currently no legal restriction on any bookseller offering this book anywhere in the world), and a.r.s. members who spread the news to the Real Journalists currently getting credit for breaking the story.
Usenet continues, then, in its role as the Aurora Avenue of the Internet: A whole lot of people use it every day, and there's plenty going on, but it seems to have a reputation for attracting mainly wackos and unsavory characters. And what's more, it's ugly in a locale where physical beauty is prized above most other features. (Comparisons between the alt.sex family of newsgroups and the freelance businesswomen one meets along Aurora are left as an exercise for the reader.)
If it's wackos you want, it is indeed harder to do better than Usenet, where any given discussion in any of its tens of thousands of newsgroups is destined to die in a burst of flame, or in a whimper of irrelevance, or in some cases both. (For instance, while the Scientology folk were keeping more or less to themselves in their own group, various whale huggers were littering newsgroups ranging from seattle.general to alt.tv.star-trek.ds9 with anti-Makah mewlings—on-target and of the right vintage whine for the former newsgroup, off-topic and justly flamed by the latter.)
If anyone could hack into any Web site and post any damn thing that fluttered into his or her head, the Web would be like Usenet—and, not incidentally, a lot more fun. Back before he realized there was more money to be made in demigodhood than in writing freaky sci-fi novels, founder L. Ron Hubbard might have been amused.
As I write this, an overview of the whole controversy has been posted at http://www.xenu.com, a Web site dedicated to continuing coverage of the Scientology saga. If you're curious about the controversy, you'll have to read up there; the newsgroup has already moved on.
"So, what are they saying on Usenet?"
Wouldn't you like to know? Don't you think you should?