Google was accused on Wednesday of effectively removing a Web site that is critical of the Scientology cult from the Web, after it told the site that it was deleting links from its search engine.
Andreas Heldal-Lund, Webmaster of the Xenu.net Web site, said in a Usenet posting that Google was removing links to the site, which bills itself as Operation Clambake: The fight against the Church of Scientology on the Net. The term Operation Clambake comes in part, according to Heldal-Lund, from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's claims that humans evolved from clams.
The move could have huge implications for other Web sites, particularly those that criticise large organisations. The Church of Scientology asked Google to remove the links under a controversial US law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This is the same law that was used to prosecute Russian programmer Dimitry Sklyarov for exposing weaknesses in Adobe's e-book encryption software, and hacker Web site 2600.com for linking to other another site that published details of how to decrypt DVD movies.
"They (Google) inform me that Operation Clambake is removed from Google because of a DMCA notification from the cult," wrote Heldal-Lund. He said the complaint demanded that Google take down a large number of references to different parts of Xenu.net. "The complaint mentions a ridiculous list of addresses, which successfully removes the whole site from their engine," he said.
In its email, Google said it removed specific URLs "in response to a notification submitted by the Religious Technology Center and Bridge Publications under section 512 (c) (3) of the DMCA."
However, Google did not remove links to the Xenu.net site that were not covered by the DMCA notification.
Section 512 (c) (3) of the Act that Google refers to deals with removing links to material that may infringe copyright. It the case of Xenu.net, the Google links are to pages that contain material copyrighted by the Church of Scientology. On his site, Heldal-Lund defends this use of copyrighted material, saying that he believes Scientology survives "through the protection afforded it by copyright laws in a way that copyright laws were not designed to address."
Heldal-Lund contends that "much important information is withheld from the public by the Church of Scientology. If the full information about the teachings of the Church of Scientology were made available to the public then perhaps many people who would join it would never become involved with it in the first place. I think people have the right to know."
However, these arguments have not swayed Google. "Had we not removed these URLs," said Google, "we would be subject to a claim for copyright infringement, regardless of its merits."
Google said that under the relevant section of the DMCA, Xenu.net could submit a counter-notification, in which case the search engine could reinstate the material, but Heldal-Lund said this would require the services of a lawyer and would be prohibitively expensive.