May 29, 2009 -- Wikipedia, the giant online encyclopedia anyone can edit, has decided to block contributions from computers owned by the Church of Scientology, saying that it has changed copy to advance its own agenda.
In one of the longest-running disputes in Wikipedia's history, the Web site's arbitration committee said, "All IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates, broadly interpreted, are to be blocked as if they were open proxies." An IP address is a code that identifies a computer's location on the Internet.
The committee said online contributors, using computers apparently owned by the church, were coordinating to change articles about Scientology and advance a single, specific viewpoint.
"You could imply that there is a conflict of interest," said Dan Rosenthal, a media contact for Wikipedia. "Rather than two unrelated people getting together," he said advocates of scientology were "getting together, saying, 'Let's work together to make this a more pro-scientology article.'"
The committee's decision also blocks some critics of Scientology from editing articles on the topic.
Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the Church at its main office in Los Angeles, said, "People have conflicts on Wikipedia all the time, and it's obvious why -- anybody can post."
Rosenthal said that although the arbitration committee decided to block the church's IP addresses, it has not entirely banned the church from contributing to the encyclopedia.
Scientology 'Among the Most Controversial'
Under the ruling, people editing Wikipedia entries from Scientology's IP addresses can apply for an exemption. With it, they could still write material for the Web site on the condition that they agree to Wikipedia's published policies.
If a user continues to violate the site's policies, the committee can take further measures, and, conceivably, ban the person for good.
Rosenthal said the committee's decision didn't shut the door on the church entirely. "They just have to reach out and turn the knob," he said.
Editors on both sides of the debate were violating the rules and acting inappropriately, Rosenthal said. The arbitration committee also found that anti-Scientology activists would reference each other and use their own work to source articles, which is against Wikipedia's rules.
"Scientology is up there among the most controversial on Wikipedia," Rosenthal said. "You can compare it to articles on abortion, the presidential election and the like and there's been nowhere near the level of bitterness and fighting."
Wikipedia Blocks Scientologists
Wikipedia disputes about Scientology have gone on since 2005. This recent case began in December and is the fourth one to reach the all-volunteer arbitration committee, which is elected by people who most actively edit Wikipedia articles.
"Historically, Scientology has tried to control what critics say about it," said Stephen Kent, a sociologist with the University of Alberta in Canada. "The Internet, however, has posed insurmountable problems regarding control and censorship and Wikipedia's action is just one of many disputes that have occurred when Internet users have pushed back.
"Scientology can't roll over and give up on this issue. It will continue to attempt to have its representation," he added.
The Church of Scientology, legally established in California in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, holds to the belief, among other things, that "Man is an immortal, spiritual being. His experience extends well beyond a single lifetime. His capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realized -- and those capabilities can be realized."
Celebrity Members Include Tom Cruise, John Travolta
Over the years, it has attracted such celebrity members as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Lisa Marie Presley.
Hubbard's teachings hold that through a process called auditing -- conscious recall of traumatic events in a person's life -- one can find greater self-understanding and happiness. It therefore rejected psychotherapy. And it was accused of trying to silence critics, some of whom -- in Wikipedia entries and elsewhere -- called it a cult rather than a religion.
Pouw, the church spokeswoman, rejected the cult accusations. "That's a throwback to the 1970s," she said. "That issue was settled long ago."
"Twelve million Scientologists call it a religion, and governments around the world call it a religion," she said. In the United States, it has tax-exempt status as a religious institution.
Pouw said Wikipedia is not a major way the church tries to spread its message. She said people ought to go instead to Scientology's own Web site, Scientology.org.
Rosenthal said Scientology articles are not among the most read articles on Wikipedia -- in April, they were viewed nearly 240,000 times and ranked 318th in traffic on the Web site's English version -- but they tend to be among the most contentious.
"It's really hard for most people to discuss it rationally without turning it into some kind of war," he said. "In this case, that happened to spill on to Wikipedia."