Delia Venables goes in search of the business uses and abuses taking place over the World Wide Web

Delia Venables

In physical form, the Internet is just many thousands of computers linked together over telephone lines or satellite lines. In that sense, it is not really new at all – people have been logging in to remote computers for some years now.

However, as a concept, the Internet is more than this and it is often described as the 'Information Superhighway'. The transportation system is in fact quite a good analogy. There are local roads, trunk roads, and international routes. Then there are rail systems, sea routes, air routes and indeed space routes.

All these connect in various ways, for example at airports, railway stations, sea ports and bus stations. These physical roads and routes corresponded to the different types of computer connection, varying from slow dial-up lines over the telephone system, through faster, specially dedicated lines for more concentrated data transmission, to satellites.

But this is not the entire transportation system. Using the roads and routes, there are many types of vehicle and service available to transport people and goods about: cars, buses, taxis, bicycles, trains, planes, horses and feet.

These vary in speed, cost and convenience; some are publicly available and some are private.

On the Internet, the vehicles include electronic mail (email), Newsgroups, Gopher, Veronica, the World Wide Web and Netscape. These information systems may look and feel different from each other, but all of them are on the Internet in the same way that individuals are "in the transportation network" when you commute to work.

Here are some of the more practical uses of the Internet.

– Email

Just as you have a name and address in normal life, you can also have an email address. This will act as a letter box on a particular central computer to which other people around the world can send messages. You dial in to this computer from your personal computer at home or at work and collect (read) your mail. You can print it, or delete it, or answer it, or send it on to someone else. Messages can have whole files (ie documents in electronic form) attached.

One key point is that you cannot be sure that the message has arrived, or been read; the message does not "tell" the recipient that it is there let alone require the recipient to read it. This limits its use as a means of delivering important messages or documents, but for people who want to receive their messages, it is extremely effective.

To send and receive email you need to register with a services provider on the Internet, ie an organisation that runs a computer attached to the Internet. Those organisations offering services to the general public include Demon, Compuserve and Delphi, typically charging around £10 a month.

– Link

Lawyers have an additional option; a service called Legal Information Network (Link). A great advantage of Link is that it is free for email to other people on Link themselves. It is also possible to have a recorded delivery service on Link for a charge, which does let you know whether someone has received your message.

However, if you want to send messages beyond the Link community (ie over the larger Internet) there is a charge made by Link.

Incidentally, for messages sent beyond Link, you cannot find out whether a message has been received.

Link also provides other services, including legal discussion groups, legal forms, directories of solicitors and barristers, company searches and formations and various other types of legal search.

– Newsgroups

A newsgroup is just like a public noticeboard in a town which many people look at as they pass by, and to which anyone may post a message.

People already on Link will be familiar with the discussions there.

On the Internet, there are literally thousands and thousands of these newsgroups on every subject under the sun – serious, humorous, eccentric and, yes it's true, pornographic.

The overwhelming impression I have while "browsing" through these different newsgroups on the Internet (ie not the Link ones) is that most of them are useless.

– Gopher

Gopher is the name of a piece of software that enables you to search information on the Internet by use of a menu structure. The name comes from the slang for someone who likes to 'go fer' things. The first menu page offers you around 10 to 20 choices, any one of which then leads to another menu which offers another 10 to 20 options, and so on.

As you pursue your chosen topic along this menu structure you are in fact being switched around the world from one computer to another. This can be exciting if it works properly, but it can also be frustrating since the message sometimes comes back that the information promised has not been made available or that a connection to the host computer cannot be made; in other words, you have got three-quarters of the way to your goal but are suddenly thrown off the train. The train can also go extremely slowly at times – so slowly that you give up completely and go home instead.

– Veronica

An option usually available within Gopher access methods is called Veronica. Veronica is an acronym for 'Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computerised Archives' (the computing community like its little jokes). This technique enables a search to be carried out by keyword.

However, this type of search, like Gopher itself, is entirely dependent on what someone has put on the network. Thus, the keyword "law" produces thousands of references but they are not systematically organised in any way. For a serious legal search you would still need Lexis or another professionally prepared database.

– World Wide Web

The access methods described so far are text-based. The World Wide Web (www) is an alternative means of presenting information which allows pictures and graphics to be included and which also allows "hyperlinks", ie the ability to call up a reference in a text or a picture to find additional layers of information. You can use a mouse to choose your options and, in theory, pictures and even video clips can be located and shown on your screen.

To access the www in this way requires special programs called world wide web browsers, of which the best known is called Netscape.The www is the area of the Internet attracting most attention at present but there are a number of things to watch out for. In particular, you need a special type of access to the Internet, which is not available from all providers (you have to ask for the www specifically). It is relatively slow to transfer the much larger amounts of information needed to show a good picture, let alone a video clip. Phone bills become an important consideration while 'surfing' the web, even if you find a local services provider so that the calls are just local ones.

– Law firms on the Internet

Clifford Chance is the biggest of the major UK firms to advertise on the Internet (using www), although Jeffrey Green Russell has set up a description of the firm's branches, services and special areas of expertise. It is possible to browse among dozens of papers and publications listed by the firm and then to request one or more of them.

LawNet, a group of 77 firms of solicitors spread throughout the country, has also established a presence on a services provider called MarketNet and is offering a will writing service in the first instance with other services to follow. The user (ie an ordinary member of the public) can fill in an on-screen form requesting advice and will then be contact-ed by a local LawNet firm. For readers with access to www, the respective uniform resource locators are: