Wikipedia bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."
Anyone except for Scientologists, that is.
The popular online encyclopedia has banned people using the Church of Scientology's computers from changing Wikipedia articles about Scientology.
The site's administrators imposed the ban after concluding that church members have been making a coordinated effort to repeatedly edit Wikipedia entries to give a favorable slant on the controversial religion.
The dispute offers a glimpse at a hidden online war that's been raging on the country's seventh-most-popular Web site.
Wikipedia says the church and some of its vocal critics are engaged in "edit wars" — aggressively adding or removing complimentary or disparaging material from articles related to Scientology. The Web site also banned a handful of church critics from changing articles.
"This long-standing dispute is a struggle between two rival factions: admirers of Scientology and critics of Scientology," the site's administrators concluded in a memo posted on the Web site. "Each side wishes the articles within this topic to reflect their point of view and have resorted to battlefield editing tactics."
Wikipedia has blocked IP addresses for certain congressional offices and even, temporarily, the Department of Justice, when Wikipedia's editors said found abuses coming from IP addresses affiliated with those offices.
This is believed to be the first time that Wikipedia has banned such a large group.
Scientology's headquarters are in Los Angeles and Clearwater. Wikipedia was founded in St. Petersburg and moved to San Francisco a couple of years ago.
Many Wikipedia entries are in a constant state of flux as they're edited and re-edited. The nonprofit site is policed by an army of volunteer administrators who keep an eye out for bias or online vandalism. The goal is for articles to be neutral in tone and to explain opposing viewpoints when the topic is controversial.
This has been difficult in the case of Scientology. Its most vocal detractors, some of whom are ex-Scientologists, use the Internet as a forum to criticize the church and its leadership. And the church defends itself aggressively.
This has spilled over into Wikipedia, which has an assortment of lengthy online articles about Scientology, its founder L. Ron Hubbard, and its history, beliefs and various controversies.
Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis said church members are only confronting inaccuracies on the Web: "The story that's being missed is there were people who were doing nonstop attacks on the church and using Wikipedia to do it. Those people have been banned."
He said church leaders never orchestrated a campaign to edit Wikipedia articles. "The church is huge. … Scientologists are going to say what they're going to say about their own religion."
Wikipedia's "arbitration committee" of longtime volunteer administrators has become exasperated at the back-and-forth changes being made to Scientology articles. The current case is the fourth Scientology-related dispute on the site in four years.
Wikipedia's committee found:
• Tracking software shows that many changes came from internet protocol (IP) addresses owned by the church and its associates.
• Online biographies of Scientology proponents and critics were repeatedly changed to slant the article either toward or against the subject.
• In one case, a Wikipedia user who was registered under the name "Spidern" for six weeks did 442 article edits, 372 of them on Scientology.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.