August 10, 2011
Some Thoughts On the Web's 20th Birthday
Did anyone notice that last Saturday, August 6th, was the 20th birthday of the World Wide Web? The anniversary didn’t make much of an impact, or at least not enough to justify a Google doodle. Instead we had a graphic commemorating Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday. China and related areas had a different one for Chinese Valentine’s Day and Bolivia had one commemorating Independence Day. That’s one change the Web has brought: instead of reading those obscure texts in printed calendar day boxes, we rely on Google to tell us the significance of the day through its logo.
The Internet is much older than the Web, starting off as ARPANET, a computer network developed by the Defense Department. The prophetic first words transmitted over the telegraph in 1844 were “What hath God wrought.” The first text transmitted on ARPANET was the letters L, O, and G, which promptly crashed the system. This preceded the blue screen of death on Windows, the sad Mac face that appeared on an Apple machine when it failed to start (try zapping the P-RAM, they’d say), and every other error message that plagues us to this day.
We didn’t know what we were getting into back then. There were serious discussions about whether people would get lost retracing their path through hyperlinks. No one today even remotely thinks they need a Sherpa to perform basic web navigation. That was part of the naivety over this wondrous invention. I remember sitting is a library science class down in Austin in 1994. We were supposed to identify and explain the value resources on the nascent Internet. That’s when Gopher still ruled and the graphical web had started to emerge in force. One student showed the FTS flower site. Oh, the criticism that emerged. How dare the pure web be sullied by crass commercialism!
As I’ve taught research over the years I remind students that the Web was designed essentially to sell us movie tickets, DVDs, and the like. The net was fostered in those early days by the Department of Commerce, not the Department of Education. That should have told us something without having to dig deeper. Legal research via the Web at that time was almost non-existent save for some governmental units putting up small archives of public documents.
We’ve come pretty far since then. I think, however, that we are still better at selling DVDs than creating a comprehensive source for primary law such as law.gov. We still struggle with such concepts as reliability, authentication, consistency, reputation of sources, and the like. Only two courts, Arkansas and Illinois have gone purely electronic for their decisions. Even the U.S. Supreme Court will tell you that any conflicts with its online opinions and printed versions are resolved in favor of print. Government likes the convenience of the web, but in many situations it still doesn’t trust it. I’d like to mention here how GPO is addressing this through its efforts to authenticate the documents that it publishes. At the same time, that same effort is conflicted by funding cuts. We’d rather spend money and effort on securing a Grade C movie from unauthorized copying than securing our law for public distribution.
The web was magic in the early days, especially for those of us born analog. We’ve gone from slow dial-up modems to fast Internet that we can carry in our pockets, for a fee, of course. We can pay for physical objects by waving a smart phone, buy digital items with a few swipes of a finger, and turn ourselves into minor celebrities through the use of social media. We’re also struggling with concepts of privacy as the analog world offered built in protections from most strangers that the digital world does not. Then there is security as bad actors with technical skills prey upon others. And, of course, there is spam. The world is a much different place than it was twenty years ago. Yahoo was the darling back then and curated its links by hand. It’s impossible to imagine something like that now. I doubt that very few people could accurately predict what the Internet will look like in twenty more years. I mean, we still don’t have flying cars. With that track record, I wouldn’t even predict law.gov or an equivalent will come to pass. I'll go out on a limb and predict that if it does come to pass, that in twenty years there is a fair chance it might include ads. [MG]
I've been a law librarian (and attorney) for over forty years, starting with books, moving through acoustic couplers, etc. I built the first law department intranet in 1993, and since then have designed a number of online legal tools to address specific business issues.
I don't believe there will be a comprehensive, reliable "law.com" until practicing attorneys take an interest, which will undoubtedly be financial. As more clients refuse to pay for online research, law firms will have to swallow more of their Lexis & Westlaw bills, cutting into profitability.
A better approach would be to charge all law firms a modest per lawyer annual fee, say $10. That would generate close to $200 million in the US alone. The money could then be used to fund and staff a real "law.com" which would be authoritative and reliable, and free. That modest fee, even of the largest firms, would be a fraction of the amount they are probably writing down their current online bills.
Posted by: Giuliano Chicco | Aug 11, 2011 8:24:04 AM