SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Some on the Net call it cyberspace's Vietnam. Others prefer the analogy of the Spanish Civil War.

Whichever it is, the back-and-forth skirmishes of this guerrilla conflict are an excellent example of the kind of vigilantism that rules in the anarchy that is the Internet.

The battle pits the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology against a few loosely organized bands of free speech advocates who have taken up what they believe to be the flag of truth.

At issue is the right of the church to safeguard its sacred writings, some of which it says are copyright and some it calls trade secrets. The church has fought, both in the courts and in online arenas, to protect those writings. And that has the raised the ire of free speech advocates, wily in the ways of the Net, who see the conflict as a fight for the soul of cyberspace.

The ongoing confrontation is perhaps the best example of the Internet as a self-regulating anarchy: When the church made ample use of the U.S. legal system to stop the illegal posting of its copyright materials, Internet users countered with hit-and-run online networks to spread information faster than the church could file suits.

Things began quietly in July 1991, when Scientology critic Scott Goehring formed the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, which quickly became home to a crowd of current and former Scientologists arguing endlessly about the nature of the church.

With more than 1,700 separate newsgroups devoted to everything from the DNA structure of the fruit fly to raucous shouting matches on feminism, Usenet is a mix between Hyde Park on a Sunday and World Federation Wrestling.

It wasn't until persons unknown began posting secret teachings considered copyright by the church that things began to heat up. The posters claimed they were making ``fair use'' of the writings _ allowed under copyright law _ because they were commenting on them, much the way a reviewer can quote a passage from a book without getting into trouble with the publisher.

Not according to the church.

``They'll publish three pages and then one line, `Isn't this crap?' '' said Jeff Quiros, a Scientology spokesman.

The online battle was never the church's idea, Quiros said. ``The church was dragged kicking and screaming into cyberspace,'' he said.

Things boiled over in January 1995, when Scientology lawyer Helena Kobrin attempted to delete an Internet discussion group devoted to Scientology because she believed it violated the church's intellectual property rights to the word ``Scientology'' itself and that it had been initiated with a forged e-mail address _ one that misspelled the name of a church leader.

``It was intended as an attempt to protect intellectual property rights. Nothing more,'' Kobrin said from her Los Angeles office.

As news of the failed attempt spread, Internet users who had never heard of Scientology took up arms. They marched over to the newsgroup in question _ alt.religion.scientology _ and checked things out themselves.

``It offended me. They're resorting to real-life egregious acts to remedy criticism in cyberspace,'' said self-described First Amendment fanatic Grady Ward of Arcata, Calif. Ward was hit with a copyright infringement suit in March when he posted Scientology material to the Net.

Ward's response was typical. Avid users of the Internet tend to get involved in any argument they run across, and many who dropped by the group to look around ended up taking up the fight _ partially because they felt free speech on the Internet was being threatened, but also because they thought it would be fun to play electronic hide-and-seek with the church.

``Essentially, it's a hobby,'' said Jerod Pore of San Francisco, who has helped distribute an electronic 'zine called ``Scamizdat'' that posts any secret Scientology writings the anonymous editors can get their hands on.

The Scientologists countered with suits against whoever they could track down and writs of seizure that permitted church lawyers and computer experts to stage surprise raids on the posters, taking their computers. In addition, the church sued the companies that provided the posters with Internet access, arguing they were directly liable for their users' copyright violations.

When The Washington Post published a story about the disputes, quoting 46 words of the secret writings, the church also sued the paper and two of its reporters.

All that set off a firestorm on the Net, with the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology as the primary battleground.

Attack programs were written by both sides. Pro-Scientology hackers created files that automatically canceled damaging postings, and the anti-Scientology forces quickly countered with a program that alerted posters their words had been canceled.

To protect themselves while continuing to post the materials, the partisans countered with ``hot potato'' computer files.

An anonymously posted file described these as ``(traveling) from host to host, rather than permanently residing in a fixed location. With each attempt to remove the file from a particular machine, which may involve threats of legal action against the file's owner (host), it jumps to another location.''

Numerous anti-Scientology Web sites also have gone up, meticulously detailing each court case, summons and outcome, with whole libraries of newspaper and magazine article appended.

Scientology has countered with its own massive Web site, weighing in with more than 30,000 pages in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. It includes information on church beliefs, a virtual reality tour of Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles and even a sound clip of Scientologist John Travolta performing.

The most recent engagement was last month's massive ``vertical spam'' of alt.relgion.scientology, a tactic that overwhelmed almost all discussion.

To spam, in Internet parlance, is to flood a newsgroup or a mailing list with off-topic messages and thereby render it unusable. In last month's attack, more than a thousand posts a day were pouring into the newsgroup, each carrying a faked e-mail address. They quoted from a church-published book about the religion and were prefaced with a note saying ``much false information'' on the subject had been distributed and that here was true data.

No one knows who was sending the messages, which sometimes came at a rate of 100 per hour. Scientology spokeswoman Debbie Blair said the church had no part in the attack.

``I think someone's written a program that generates the spam pretty much automatically,'' said Ron Newman, a Somerville, Mass., programmer who considers it his duty to protect the Net against such attacks in the absence of a governing body.

``The Net tries to deal with (problems like this) with vigilante action, which is what you have when you don't have law,'' he said.

More than anything else, the war around Scientology shows the true, irrepressible nature of the Internet. As a loose collection of networked computer networks with no governing body, there's no one to run to when anyone behaves out of turn.

As the Net shifts to a more commercial mode, the experiences of the church are a lesson to anyone used to a more civilized, docile population.

It is the opinion of Jon Noring, the originator of a petition asking the church to curb what he calls its abusive online activities, that no organization can ever win out against the Net.

``The Internet,'' he said, ``will always be a step ahead.''

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Pro and anti-Scientology sites and links to others can be found on the Web at the following addresses: http://www.scientology.org and http://www.cybercom.net/(tilde)rnewman/scientology/home.html