A little local controversy involving the Church of Scientology and its critics could lead to curbs on the right to anonymity of anyone using the web.
The argument is currently raging in Australia, following the launch last November by the Australian Human Rights Commission (HREOC) of a report entitled Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century. The theory behind this report was that it would provide a good base from which Australia could take stock of its progress in these areas over the last decade, as well as coming up with proposals to move forward.
While the impetus behind this project would appear to be mostly positive, it was always likely that calls for individual religious groups to submit proposals around protection of faiths and their own view of religious freedom could have unintended consequences.
One such consequence arrived in the shape of submission no 1931, from the Church of Scientology, protesting strongly at attacks on their faith by protest group Anonymous, and running an online campaign from a site called Whyweprotest.
According to the Church of Scientology, these attacks have reached the point where some members have been physically threatened, and slanderous attacks have been made online: however, the police have found it difficult to intervene, simply because of the anonymous nature of the attacks.
The organisation claims that since January 2008, they have been subjected to a continuing campaign of violence and abuse from a hate group calling themselves ‘Anonymous’. It adds: "In the last 13 months they have also (ie as well as their internet based assaults) committed acts of harassment and criminal offences 'in real life' against the Church, its members and Church property."
As evidence, it cites "bomb threats, arson threats and committed acts of vandalism against Scientology churches".
In response, the protest group claim that it needs anonymity to protect members' lives and livelihood. It states: "Due to Scientology's Fair Game policy, we put ourselves at risk socially, politically, and financially when we speak out against this dangerous cult.
"This is a cult that has a well earned reputation for harassing critics and openly critical ex-scientologists at their homes and workplaces. Taking measures to protect your privacy and anonymity when confronted by an aggressively litigious cult is a matter of common sense."
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the actions taken, it is the Church’s response to the HREOC that could end up having the most far-reaching consequences. They are looking for the law to be tightened to make it illegal to incite hatred against religious groups: and they are also looking for government to strip away anonymity from anyone behind such activity online.
While this argument is focused on the high emotions aroused by supporters and detractors of the CoS, it comes at a time when the law is increasingly suspicious of online anonymity. Back in June, the Times overturned a court order designed to protect the anonymity of a police blogger.
More recently, Google found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit requiring it to cough up the identity of an anonymous blogger who had made adverse comments about model Liskula Cohen.
The tide does seem to be moving inexorably against online anonymity – and this submission from the CoS may well be a sign of further things to come in Australia. ®