"We were born. We grew up. We escaped."
So reads the motto of ExScientologyKids.com, a website launched Thursday by three young women raised in the Church of Scientology who are speaking out against the religion. Their website accuses the church of physical abuse, denying some children a proper education and alienating members from family.
One of the women behind the site, Jenna Miscavige Hill, is the niece of David Miscavige, the head of the church, and Kendra Wiseman is the daughter of Bruce Wiseman, president of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology-sponsored organization opposed to the practice of psychiatry.
The day before ExScientologyKids.com launched, another inflammatory allegation about the church began to circulate virulently online. "L. Ron Hubbard Plagiarized Scientology," read a headline at the popular Internet culture blog BoingBoing. The post linked to images of a translated 1934 German book called "Scientologie," which critics say contains similar themes to Hubbard's Scientology, which he codified in 1952, according to a church website.
These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories to burn across the Internet like grass fires in recent weeks, testing the church's well-established ability to tightly control its public image. The largest thorn in the church's side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy. The high-wattage movement has inspired former Scientologists to come forward and has repeatedly trained an Internet spotlight on any story or rumor that portrays Scientology in unflattering terms.
No corner of the Web, it appears, is safe for Scientology. Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down EBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling. EBay allows brand owners -- Louis Vuitton or Rolex, say -- to remove items they believe infringe on their trademark or patent rights. Basically, fakes. But, Pilutik said, the used e-meters being taken down were genuine. Reselling them was no different than putting a for-sale sign on your old Chevy.
"What's actually going on here," he wrote, is that the church is "knowingly alleging intellectual property violations that clearly don't exist." Within a day Pilutik's blog had gotten over 45,000 visitors -- so much traffic that his site crashed completely.
Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive.
The church has referred to Anonymous as a group of "cyber-terrorists" and, in a statement, said the group's aims were "reminiscent of Al Qaeda spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction."
"These people are posing extremely serious death threats to our people," said church spokeswoman Karin Pouw in a phone interview. "We are talking about religious hatred and bigotry."
A recent video posted to YouTube contained a threat to bomb a Southern California Scientology building. An FBI spokeswoman said an investigation was in progress but that no suspects had been identified.
Reporters have long had to tread carefully when writing about Scientology, fearful that lawsuits and other kinds of retaliation would follow any story that Scientology did not like. But that may be changing.
"Before this Internet onslaught," said Douglas Frantz, a contributing editor at Portfolio magazine who covered Scientology for the New York Times in the 1990s (and is a former editor at the L.A. Times), "they were always able to go after their critics and do a good job of being able to discredit or intimidate them."
Angry former church members also perceive a kind of safety in numbers afforded by the Internet, and more are coming forward to share their stories.
"People have been scared out of their minds to speak out about Scientology," said Hill, Miscavige's niece, in an interview. "Nobody should have to be that scared to speak out about a church."
Wiseman echoed the sentiment, adding that the Anonymous campaign had influenced her decision to reveal her identity last week. "The Internet is listening. If something happens to me, all of these people will know."
The current wave of anti-Scientology activity began in January, when a video of Tom Cruise extolling the religion's tech-based approach to enlightenment was leaked onto YouTube, where users holding it up to ridicule copied and recopied it; several sites posted it without hesitation.
It wasn't long before Nick Denton, who as publisher of the blog syndicate Gawker Media had put the video online first, received a legal threat from a law firm representing Scientology, alleging copyright infringement. But Denton refused to take the video down.
"It was an awesome news story," Denton wrote in an e-mail. "If we didn't race to post it up, some other site would have. That, rather than litigation by Scientology, was the fear going through my mind."
The church's whack-a-mole campaign with the Cruise video became a rallying cry for Anonymous, which saw efforts to remove the videos from YouTube as an unwanted incursion into the domain of digital culture, where information and media, copyrighted or no, are often exchanged freely.
In a YouTube video of its own, Anonymous declared open war on the church. Early on, the group also staged cyber-attacks on Scientology websites.
But on Feb. 10, thousands of masked Anonymous members picketed at Scientology locations around the globe, chanting slogans and handing out fliers. No violent incidents were reported. The protests generated yet another wave of online media -- videos, photos, news stories, blog posts -- little of it in praise of Scientology.
The result of all this attention has been that just about any story critical of Scientology -- even those that have been publicly accessible for years -- can gain immediate Web currency. On Digg.com, a popular "social news" aggregator that features popular stories from around the Web, dozens of Scientology stories have ascended to the site's most-viewed list in the last several weeks. A successful Digg story can drive tens of thousands of views to the originating site, as was the case with Pilutik's post about e-meters.
In addition, the clamor generated by Anonymous has raised the profile of the small but vehement anti-Scientology community that existed before Anonymous, and even made for some cross-pollination between the two camps.
Scientology's longtime detractors, such as those at Operation Clambake (xenu.net) and Scientology Lies, claim it is not a religion at all but a business that charges its parishioners ever more onerous fees for access to revealed truths. Other online forums, such as the Ex-Scientologist Message Board and ExScientologyKids, have become places for former members to congregate, share stories and offer support
Ironically, it is the church's aversion to negative publicity -- and the legal strategy it has long used to prevent it, that has aroused more online ire than any other issue.
The website ChillingEffects .com has posted dozens of cease-and-desist letters sent by Scientology's lawyers to various website and Internet service providers requesting that copyrighted material be removed.
But in the diffuse and often Byzantine world of the Web, some precision legal strikes are more likely to backfire than hit their target. Scientology's use of copyright law appears to be an increasingly losing battle on the Web, said Andrew Bridges, a San Francisco-based intellectual property attorney. "The big question is: Is the copyright serving the purpose of promoting science and the useful arts, or is the purpose essentially the stifling of criticism?"
Still, according to Scientology spokeswoman Pouw, the church views the Internet as a positive tool. It is, Pouw said, "concentrating on using the Internet as a resource for promoting its message and mission in this world, not as a ground for litigation."
But now that goal will have to exist alongside a seemingly steady stream of online attacks. And while anonymous political activity, such as postering around a town, is nothing new, Bridges noted, the speed of the Web is what is giving Scientology trouble.
"What's different is that more people can see the stuff faster than Scientology can go around and get it taken down."