more about the Google/Clambake/Scientology thing...
Google Runs Into Copyright Dispute
April 22, 2002
By DAVID F. GALLAGHER
Google, the company behind the popular Web search engine,
has been playing a complicated game recently that involves
the Church of Scientology and a controversial copyright
Legal experts say the episode highlights problems with the
law that can make companies or individuals liable for
linking to sites they do not control. And it has turned
Google, whose business is built around a database of two
billion Web pages, into a quiet campaigner for the freedom
The church sent a complaint to Google last month, saying
that its search results for "Scientology" included links to
copyrighted church material that appears on a Web site
critical of the church. Under the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act of 1998, which was intended to make it easier
for copyright holders to fight piracy, the complaint meant
that Google was required to remove those links quickly or
risk being sued for contributing to copyright infringement.
The site in question, Operation Clambake (www.xenu.net), is
based in Norway, beyond the reach of the United States
copyright act. The site portrays the church as a greedy
cult that exploits its members and harasses critics.
Andreas Heldal-Lund, the site's owner, says the posting of
church materials, including some internal documents and
pictures of church leaders, is allowable under the "fair
use" provisions of internationally recognized copyright
When Google responded to the church's complaint by removing
the links to the Scientology material, techies and
free-speech advocates accused Google of censoring its
search results. Google also briefly removed the link to
Operation Clambake's home page but soon restored it, saying
the removal had been a mistake.
At that point, according to Matthew Cutts, a software
engineer at Google, it started developing a better way to
handle such complaints. "We respond very quickly to
challenges, and not just technical challenges but also
these sort of interesting, delicate situations, as well,"
Mr. Cutts said.
Under Google's new policy, when it receives a complaint
that causes it to remove links from its index, it will give
a copy of the complaint to the Chilling Effects
Clearinghouse (chillingeffects.org). Chilling Effects is a
project of a civil liberties advocacy group called the
Electronic Frontier Foundation and several law schools. It
it offers information about Internet rights issues.
In the new procedure, Google informs its users when a link
has been removed from a set of search results and directs
them to the Chilling Effects site. For example, a search
for the word "helatrobus," which appears in some
Scientology texts, brings up a page of results with this
notice at the bottom: "In response to a complaint we
received under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we
have removed one result(s) from this page. If you wish, you
may read the D.M.C.A. complaint for these removed results."
The notice includes a link to Scientology's complaint on
chillingeffects.org, which lists the Web addresses of the
material to which Google no longer links. The result is
that a complaint could end up drawing more attention to the
very pages it is trying to block.
Mr. Cutts said Google started linking to
chillingeffects.org early this month but made no
announcement, so it took a while for word to go around
online. Meanwhile, Scientology sent Google two more
complaints, citing pages within copies of the Operation
Clambake site on other servers. All three complaints are
now on the Chilling Effects site.
Don Marti, the technical editor of Linux Journal, first
wrote about Google's move on the magazine's site. He said
he had been so upset about the company's initial response
to the Scientologists that he organized a small group of
protesters who visited Google's headquarters in Mountain
View, Calif., where he also lives. Mr. Marti says he now
applauds Google's efforts to make the process more
transparent. If a letter of complaint simply makes a site
more popular, "only a fool would send one," he said.
Helena Kobrin, a lawyer representing Scientology at the law
firm of Moxon & Kobrin in Los Angeles, said that Google's
use of the letters of complaint would not discourage the
church from pursuing further complaints if necessary and
that there was nothing in the letters that needed to be
hidden. "I think they show very graphically to people that
the only thing we're trying to do is protect copyrights,"
As part of its new process for handling complaints, Mr.
Cutts said, Google added more information on its site
explaining how site owners could have their links restored
by filing a countercomplaint with Google. (The required
forms can be downloaded from chillingeffects.org.) If site
owners take this step, he said, they accept responsibility
for the contents of their pages.
Mr. Heldal-Lund, a Norwegian citizen, said he would not
file a countercomplaint because it would put him under the
jurisdiction of United States law. He said that he
regretted making so much trouble for Google but was glad
that the incident had highlighted the church's pursuit of
The church, which has beliefs based on the idea that people
need to release themselves from trauma suffered in past
lives, has taken a keen interest in the Internet since
1994, when someone posted secret church teachings on an
online discussion group. Critics say the church guards its
teachings closely because it wants its followers to pay for
access to higher levels of instruction. The church says
that these payments are donations and that it is simply
seeking to protect its rights online.
With its Chilling Effects partnership, Google is subtly
making the point that the right to link is important to its
business and to the health of the Web, said David G. Post,
a law professor at Temple University who specializes in
"This is an example where copyright law is being used in
conflict with free connectivity and free expression on the
Net," he said. Dr. Post said Google's situation highlighted
the need for more awareness of copyright issues, including
pending legislation that is more restrictive than the 1998
law. The measure is backed by entertainment giants like
Walt Disney, but technology companies like Intel have come
out against it, saying it would hurt consumers and slow
Mr. Cutts said that the links to the complaints were not a
political statement, just a way to "make sure our users get
all of the information that they need." He said that Google
had no official position on the copyright act and that so
far it had not been involved in political activity or
lobbying. But he said it "might take an interest in more of
The copyright controversy has had an interesting side
effect for Operation Clambake. The Google software judges
the importance of a page in part by looking at how many
other pages link to it. Scientology's complaint set off a
flurry of linking to the critics' site, pushing it up two
spots to No. 2 in the search results for "Scientology" -
just below the church's official site.
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