An introduction to the Internet for the uninitiated – how to get there and what to do when you arrive.
By Erik J. Heels
First published 5/2/1995; Arizona Attorney magazine; publisher: State Bar of Arizona
Has all the talk about CyberSpace, the Information Superhighway, and the National Information Infrastructure got you down? 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? Fear not, the Internet is becoming more user-friendly. In this article, I will attempt 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, I’ll discuss how the Internet can be a practical tool for the legal professional.
I. What Is the Internet?
A network is simply two or more computers connected by wires. An internet (lower-case “i”) is two or more interconnected networks. The Internet (upper-case “I”) 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.
II. How to Get On the Internet.
As more people get on the Internet, fewer people will be able to ignore the Internet. Do you remember when you added your fax number to your business card? It may not be long until you add your Internet e-mail address as well. For those lawyers who want to communicate with their clients via the Internet (because there surely will be clients who want to do so) or who want to shape the future of the law OF the Internet, now is the time to get on. Here’s how.
A. Get an account on one of the commercial online services.
Currently, the five largest national commercial online services 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 services offer Internet e-mail, and several offer other Internet tools (discussed further below). Also, many 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.
B. Read up on the Internet.
Once you are on the Internet, it is relatively easy to find out more about the Internet. One source of information about the Internet available from numerous sites on the Internet is the Request For Comments (RFCs). 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.” 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 Internet etiquette (called “netiquette”), read Virginia Shea’s “Netiquette,” which documents the formerly unwritten rules of Internet etiquette.
C. Moving beyond dial-in accounts.
Consider registering your own Internet domain name (the part of an e-mail address to the right of the “@” sign), rather than just having an individual account (the part of an e-mail address to the left of the “@” sign) on somebody else’s machine. This is more expensive than a simple commercial account, but there are inexpensive options (such as asynchronous dial-up PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) and UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy Protocol) accounts), and you will gain flexibility and control. For example, you could set up your own FTP server, and your e-mail address would be email@example.com rather than firstname.lastname@example.org. The Krol book lists many companies who are in the Internet domain (rather than account) business. Here in Arizona (602 area), there are several Internet service providers including CR Laboratories Dialup Internet Access (email@example.com, 415/381-2800), Data Basix (info@Data.Basix.com, 602/721-1988), Evergreen Communications (firstname.lastname@example.org, 602/955-8315), and Internet Direct, Inc. (email@example.com, 602/274-0100 in Phoenix, 602/324-0100 in Tucson).
IV. 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.
A. Electronic Mail (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.
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) 1) that you wouldn’t say to the recipient’s face or 2) 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. You don’t want to offend you clients!
B. File Transfer Protocol (FTP).
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. The owner of an 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 the software that runs on an ATM machine 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. Because 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, many Internet users can 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.
D. The World-Wide Web (WWW).
WWW is a 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) lets you 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. WWW has become the Internet tool of choice, because WWW “browsers” (software programs that allow one to connect to WWW servers) can also access Gopher and FTP servers. The most popular WWW browser is called Mosaic, a public-domain (i.e. free) software program developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Commercial versions of Mosaic are also available.
V. Practical Uses for the Legal Professional
The Internet offers a unique duality: communication and publication.
A. Communication via E-mail.
Internet e-mail is nearly instantaneous, never (well, almost never) busy, and as easy as writing a letter. The recipient of an e-mail message can return (by cutting and pasting) portions of the sender’s original e-mail message with his/her response to provide the necessary context that is often lost in USPS mail or in phone messages.
B. Publication/Research via FTP, Gopher, and WWW Servers
As a means of publication, the Internet can be used for advertising, research, etc. Unlike Internet e-mail, which is primarily two-way communication, Internet publication (via FTP, Gopher, and WWW servers) is primarily one-way communication–from the publisher to the Internet community. The Internet “publisher” (which includes anybody who chooses to make information available on the Internet) can establish an FTP server, a Gopher server, and/or a World-Wide Web server.
On the Internet one can find primary law (cases, statutes, and treaties), secondary law (law review articles and the like), and tertiary law (discussion groups, unpublished manuscripts and the like). The key players in publishing law-related information on the Internet are law schools and government institutions. Since the Internet is a network of networks, with each network independently owned and operated, some servers are better organized than others. Ultimately, if the case, the statute, or the law review article that the Internet user seeks exists on the Internet, it exists as a file on a hard disk (or other storage medium) on a computer on a network somewhere on the Internet. It may exist in more that one location, and one location’s version may be more up-to-date than another’s.
VI. The Future of the Internet
Despite the growing popularity of the Internet as a means for communication, it has not yet achieved the same level of acceptance as the post office, the telephone, or the fax machine. While law firms regularly include postal addresses, phone numbers, and fax numbers on their business letters, and business cards, few include Internet addresses. Even in the academic community, where Internet access has been more common, the Internet hasn’t risen to the level of the fax machine. Of the top 40 US law schools, Case Western Reserve University is the only school whose brochure specifically lists e-mail and WWW server addresses.
The Internet should be thought of as supplementing–not supplanting–traditional means of communication and publication. In my opinion, letterhead, fax leaders, business cards, and e-mail signatures should all contain US Postal Service addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, and Internet addresses. Law firms should be prepared to use ALL of the generally accepted means of communication. Your clients may want to have options. Like the fax machine, the Internet is here to stay.