Once you get your sense of direction, you can start to increase your Net worth.
By Erik J. Heels
First published 11/1/1994; Student Lawyer magazine, “Online” column; publisher: American Bar Association
Has your experience with the Internet been a Web of confusion? Do you feel like you have fallen into a Gopher hole with no way out? This month’s column attempts to introduce the uninitiated to the Internet–how to get there, and what to do when you arrive. Also, for new and experienced Internet users, we’ll discuss some law-related Internet resources–particularly those of interest to law students.
What Is the Internet?
The Internet is the international network of interconnected computer networks. Estimates of the number of individuals on the Internet vary widely, but it is safe to say that there are probably 50 million users worldwide. This makes the Internet the world’s second-largest communication network, after the telephone network.
The Internet and the telephone network are not mutually exclusive–many of the computers on the Internet are connected by various types of phone lines. Like the telephone network, it matters less to the end user how the technology works, and more how to use the technology. A notable difference between the Internet and the telephone network is that electronic mail (e-mail) sent to users outside of one’s home country typically costs the same (at least for the end user) as e-mail sent to users within one’s home country. As a result, individuals from all over the world can “meet” on the Internet in virtual communities.
Like any other community, the Internet has rules of etiquette called netiquette. A quick summary of the rules of etiquette: Never say anything in an e-mail message (or a news posting) that you wouldn’t say to the recipient’s face or that you wouldn’t say in a long-distance phone call (i.e. realize that some users pay for incoming e-mail). The power to send e-mail–essentially instantly–to anyone in the world is great, and it should be understood lest it be abused.
How to Get On the Internet
Most ABA-accredited law schools are already connected to the Internet. Since you are already paying for this Internet connection via your tuition, this is your least expensive connectivity option. If you’re not sure if your law school is on the Internet, ask someone in your law library–chances are they will know. If your law school is not yet on the Internet, you can purchase an account from any number of Internet account vendors. Currently, the five largest national vendors are Prodigy (1/800/776-3449), CompuServe (1/800/848-8990), America Online (1/800/827-6364), GEnie (1/800/638-9636), and Delphi (1/800/695-4005). All of these vendors offer Internet e-mail, and several offer other Internet tools (discussed further below). Also, many of these vendors offer free trial periods and home-access software (much like the Lexis and Westlaw software that you may already have); call and ask for details.
How to Learn More about the Internet
Once you are on the Internet, it is relatively easy to find out more about the Net itself. Your Internet provider, whether it is your law school or a commercial vendor, most likely has Internet-related information available online.
One source of information about the Internet available from numerous sites on the Internet is the Request For Comments (RFCs). The RFCs were originally electronic documents that were circulated for comments and that described a new protocol that was needed to help the computers connected to the Internet work together more effectively. Today, these documents are still referred to as RFCs because each is open for comment and subject change as the Internet evolves.
Certain RFCs have remained unchanged for long periods of time and have become Internet standards. In addition to documenting standard protocols, the RFCs document the history of the Internet since 1969 and provide help and information for new Internet users.
To receive introductory information on the Internet via e-mail, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org with “document-by-name rfc1594” in the body of the message. You will receive RFC number 1594, “Questions and Answers for New Internet Users.” To receive an index of RFCs (there are about 1,700), include “document-by-name rfc-index” in the text of your message. The RFCs can be a road map (or a treasure map) for you if you enjoy exploring in this manner.
If you’d rather have books by your side before you get on the Internet, you might want to get Brendan P. Kehoe’s “Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet,” which is a brief, well-written, easy-to-read overview of the Internet. Also, you might want to pick up a copy of Ed Krol’s “The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog” (Second Edition), which is a comprehensive and clear guide to the Internet and is considered essential for new Internet users. Finally to learn more about netiquette, read Virginia Shea’s “Netiquette,” which documents the formerly unwritten rules of Internet etiquette.
A Brief Primer on Some Internet Tools
There are four Internet tools that you may want to use in your research: e-mail, FTP, Gopher, and WWW. There is nothing magic about these “tools”–they are simply computer programs (like WordPerfect) that implement standard sets of rules, called protocols. (For example, using “control-V” for “paste” is a protocol on Macintosh computer systems.) No matter what computer you use (whether a Macintosh, a DOS-based computer, minicomputer, or mainframe computer) these “tools” should all work essentially the same way.
E-mail. E-mail is a tool that allows one user on the Internet to send a message to another user on the Internet. An e-mail message may contain text, pictures, and sound, but most often it is plain text. The various e-mail programs are the most widely used of the Internet tools, since the Internet is primarily used for communication between users. Users can be human or can be automated e-mail programs. Some of these automated programs can send your e-mail message to a group of individuals interested in the same type of information. By redistributing your e-mail message in this way, the automated e-mail program creates a virtual community–a discussion group. The listserv family of automated programs allows individuals to subscribe to various lists (or discussion groups). The listserv program handles all the administrative tasks (adding/deleting individuals from the subscription list; redistributing e-mail to all of the list’s subscribers), leaving individual subscribers free to discuss substantive issues. We’ll discuss some notable law-related listserv lists below.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a tool that allows users on one computer (the local computer) to connect to another computer (the remote computer) for the limited purpose of copying files from (and sometimes to) the remote computer. A computer that is set up to accept incoming FTP requests from another computer is called an FTP server. Usually, the administrators of an FTP server will copy certain files to a public directory on the FTP server. In this way, information is made available to the Internet community. An FTP server is like a bulletin board. The owner of the FTP server can add and delete files from the public directory on the FTP server just as notices can be physically tacked to (and removed from) a bulletin board.
Gopher is named for the mascot of the University of Minnesota, where it was developed. It’s a menu-driven program, much like an ATM machine at a bank. The Gopher server–a computer set up to run the program–is set up with a main menu and a series of submenus. When you select a particular menu item, you can view documents, run other Internet programs, or connect to another Gopher server. (By allowing one Gopher server to connect to another, Gopher allows users to look at menus and submenus from Gopher servers all over the world–so once you have connected to one Gopher server, you can connect to them all.) When you connect to another Gopher server, the Gopher program on your local computer connects to the Gopher program on the remote computer just long enough to copy the menu from the remote computer. This allows many Internet users to look at a particular Gopher menu at a given time. In this way, using the Gopher program is much like signing a book out of the library one page at a time–rather than tying up the pages that others may be waiting for. A well-organized Gopher server can make finding information on the Internet much easier.
The World-Wide Web (WWW) is a distributed hypertext tool. If you have ever used HyperCard on the Macintosh or the “help” feature on Microsoft Windows, then you have used a hypertext system. More accurately, WWW (which was developed by CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) is a hypermedia program because graphics and sound–in addition to text–can be displayed. A WWW server (a computer set up to run the WWW program) is like a deck of cards–you can skip from one location to another via links. Unlike Gopher, which presents you with a series of menu items, WWW presents the user with documents. Each document, like the menus in Gopher, can contain links, which often appear as bold or italicized text. When you select a particular link, you can view documents, run other Internet programs, or connect to another WWW server. The home page for a WWW server is analogous to the main menu for a Gopher server.
Some Law-Related Listserv Lists
Now that you now what the Internet is and how to get there, here are some listserv lists to which you might want to subscribe. (For all of the following listserv lists, you should substitute your real name for “your name.”)
ILSA-L Designed to provide local chapters of the International Law Students Association (ILSA) and others interested in its programs and work with a means of sharing information and advice via the Internet. To subscribe, send a message to email@example.com with “subscribe ILSA-L your name” in the body of the message.
JLS–for Jewish law students. To subscribe, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe JLS your name” in the body of the message.
LawJobs-L–for announcements of job openings in any law-related profession. Resumes may not be posted. To subscribe, send a message to email@example.com with “subscribe LawJobs-L your name” in the body of the message.
LawSch-L–for matters of concern to law students. LawSch-L is designed to allow for interaction between students and law schools to lessen the gap between them. To subscribe, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe LawSch-L your name” in the body of the message.
LexisUser-L–discussions and tips for Lexis users. (LexisUser-L is not sponsored by Mead Data Central.) To subscribe, send a message to email@example.com with “subscribe LexisUser-L your name” in the body of the message.
WestlawUser-L–discussions and tips for Westlaw users. (WestlawUser-L is not sponsored by West Publishing Company.) To subscribe, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe WestlawUser-L your name” in the body of the message.
In future issues, we’ll discuss notable FTP, Gopher, and WWW servers on the Internet. We have enjoyed hearing from readers at other law schools, and we look forward to hearing from more. Feel free to contact us on the Internet at email@example.com (Erik Heels) and firstname.lastname@example.org (Rick Klau). It may take a day or so for replies, but all e-mail messages will be answered. See you on the Net!