General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division
Technology & Practice Guide
Communicating on the Internet
E-mail, List Serves, and Newsgroups
BY LOWELL WILSON
Several communication tools are available via the Internet that can really enhance a lawyer’s day-to-day practice. E-mail provides a host of benefits—it helps lawyers communicate with clients more easily; facilitates communication between lawyers; provides a written transcript of exactly what was "said" between lawyer and client or lawyer and lawyer; and cuts down on the amount of time spent on the telephone.
List Serves and newsgroups go one step further than communication between two people. List Serves offer a forum for the exchange of information related to a specific topic between a larger number of people. Newsgroups are also topic-specific but the user has more control over the information received than with List Serves.
Plain Vanilla E-mail
Using e-mail to talk to other lawyers or clients is pretty easy. If you have someone’s e-mail address, sending e-mail is a snap. If you don’t know the address, the most efficient way to get it is to call and ask for it. Alternatively, various services are now offering online directories that include, where available, telephone numbers, street addresses, and e-mail addresses. These directories are accessible on the World Wide Web. Some good starting points are: http://www.switchboard.com/, http://www.infospace.com/, and http://www.yahoo.com/search/people/.
A word of caution. Some issues concerning e-mail may give you pause, such as privilege, confidentiality, and authentication. These three issues are cause for concern for one common reason: Any communications sent over the Internet can be captured and read by others. That said, it is actually very difficult to casually capture a specific person’s e-mail (or other communications) unless you are positioned in just the right spot, have the right tools, and have an interest in capturing the mail. But if you are going to use the Internet to communicate sensitive information, or if you are going to take action based on an e-mail message you receive from someone, you need to consider these pitfalls.
Probably the most practical way to deal with the issue of sensitive information on the Internet is to ask yourself just how sensitive the information is. If you are going to send a note to someone containing information that will appear very generic to anyone except the person for whom it is intended, then you have nothing to worry about. If you are simply making an appointment, saying "hello," or sending a newsletter, don’t worry. But if you are sending information that would be valuable to others, or if you are going to take action based on a message to be sent by e-mail, then unless you take steps to encrypt the communications, you are taking a risk.
Encryption. It is possible to scramble a normal message in such a way that only the intended recipient will be able to read it. Encryption is not foolproof—if someone listening in wants to capture and read your mail, and he or she has a lot of free time available and the use of a Cray Supercomputer, the person will be able to read even encrypted mail. But encryption makes it extremely difficult for all but the most determined to read a private message. More and more e-mail packages are including encryption as an option, and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is freely available on the Internet to anyone who wishes to use it. To try out PGP, you can get it from MIT for free by pointing your Web browser to ftp://net-dist.mit.edu/pub/PGP/. Or visit http://www.pgp.com/ for answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs).
Encryption programs can also be used to authenticate the source of a document. Suppose that you are waiting for confirmation from a client before taking some action for her. It is possible for someone with ill intentions to send e-mail in a way that will fool the recipient into thinking it came from somewhere other than its true point of origin. In other words, another person could impersonate you or your client.
If you and your client agree to use an encryption scheme, then the only way that someone could fool either of you into thinking that they were sending mail from the other would be for the imposter to know the supposed sender’s private encryption code (known as a key). The ABA has released guidelines for the use of digital signatures, and many states have drafted legislation that attempts to conform to those guidelines. Once such legislation has been widely passed, the process of encryption should get easier since e-mail programs will be able to implement a common encryption standard and automate the whole process of sending and receiving secure messages.
Plain vanilla e-mail is useful because it allows you to communicate with people you know. List Serveer discussion groups (also known as List Serves, listprocs, mailserv, mailbase, or majordomo, depending on the software used to manage the discussions) help you move beyond communicating with your own acquaintances.
The idea is that you send mail to a single address and it is forwarded to some group of people. If you have been working with e-mail systems already, this may sound like a familiar task. After all, most e-mail systems allow you to create an alias for a group of people so that every time you called up that alias, your e-mail program would know that you really want to send mail to a group of people rather than one individual.
But List Serves can do much more than that. A person can decide that he or she wants to open up a discussion group for everyone on the Internet who is interested in a certain topic; say, the use of the Internet in the practice of law. With the right software and some help from an Internet Service Provider, such a discussion group can be opened up to anyone who wishes to join in. By signing up or "subscribing," a person receives any mail that is sent to the discussion list address from that day forward. (See "Subscribing to a List Serve.")
Lists are maintained in a variety of ways. Some are a free-for-all where anyone who has signed up for the list is free to send mail of any sort to the list. Others are more closely moderated by the list owner. In some cases, the owner will check out would-be participants before letting them join. Or the moderator might choose to approve each message before it is posted to the list. If the moderator doesn’t approve the message, it doesn’t get to the list, and none of the list members will ever read the submission.
The subscription process is handled by a computer program rather than a person, and other information can be gotten from that program, such as the names of individuals participating in the discussion. In order to find out just what information is available from a particular List Serve, you can send it an e-mail message with the command help in the body of the message. The List Serve would then send a list of available commands to your e-mail address.
There are a wide variety of legal discussion lists. To find out what lists might be of interest to you (and to get specifics on how to subscribe to that particular list), check out the World Wide Website http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/law-lists. This is the site of Law Lists—information compiled by Lyonette Louis-Jacques, who has done a very thorough job of cataloguing the discussion lists currently available on the Internet. The lists range from groups as specialized as BANKRLAW@polecat. law.indiana.edu, which is a list devoted to discussions among professors of bankruptcy law, or OILGASLAW-L@lawlib.wuacc.edu, which is a discussion among practitioners who specialize in oil and gas, to lists devoted to more general topics.
Newsgroups (sometimes called Network news, Usenet news, netnews, or news) at first blush seem a lot like List Serves. But there are some significant differences. For one thing, List Serves are actually a lot more cumbersome than newsgroups. To get messages that have been posted to a list, you have to subscribe to that list and you have to have the available disk space on your Internet Service Provider’s computer to receive the mail that comes your way. You don’t have to do any of that to participate in a newsgroup. To understand why, you have to know a very little bit about how newsgroups work.
The way discussion groups work is that the listproc software actually keeps a running list of users who are interested in receiving postings to the list. Every time a message is posted, it gets sent out to all the members of the list. That’s a very straightforward system and thus very simple for the novice Internet user to grasp. But from a computing point of view, it is very inefficient.
Think of it this way: If every lawyer in your state decided to get an Internet account from the same Internet Service Provider, and they all happened to join the same List Serve, then the computers that they use to receive their e-mail would have to store a copy of every message posted to that discussion group. Each of their mailboxes would have its own copy of each posting sent out to the list.
Newsgroups are different. Each central computer that people use to gain access to the Internet subscribes to the newsgroups the owners of that system choose to make available to their account holders. So instead of posting hundreds of copies of each message, with a newsgroup one copy of each message is stored on the central computer. The newsgroup software allows each user to access a copy of a message and display it on the user’s computer screen whenever that user chooses to read articles in that newsgroup.
From a computer system administrator’s point of view, this is much more efficient than List Serves. But from a new Internet user’s point of view, newsgroups may seem a bit annoying at first. After all, you already have e-mail, which will get you to a variety of List Serves without having to learn to use new software, so why would you want to leave the comfort of your e-mail package and venture into a
For starters, newsgroups are organized in a way that makes them very easy to find and read. Each List Serve is an independent entity. The owner of the List Serve makes arrangements with a system administrator to let her run the listproc software and maintain a list on a particular computer. Once that is done, from the user’s point of view and from the view of other computer systems, list messages are just e-mail.
Another big advantage of newsgroups over List Serves is that you can very casually drop in and out of newsgroups. There is no real effort involved in browsing to get the flavor of the group. When you subscribe to a List Serve, you make a commitment to read the mail pretty much every day, and you may need to read it more than once a day if the list is especially active. And you really need to keep on top of it since you will likely be charged for disk space if you allow the amount of mail you get to pile up too much.
Newsgroups are very easy on the user once you get over the initial hurdle of learning to use the newsgroup software. The system administrator at your Internet Service Provider will delete old messages automatically every few days. You never run the risk of being charged for the disk space since none of it is specifically allocated to your account.
One disadvantage of newsgroups is that you have to make an effort to keep up with them. If e-mail is a part of your daily life already, then keeping up with a List Serve is almost a passive activity. Once you subscribe to the list, you get the mail. You don’t have to make any special efforts to look for it.
Newsgroups have another disadvantage, especially if you have kids—they make it very easy to find objectionable material on the Internet. People have created newsgroups that transmit pornography, hate speech, bomb plans, and other material that is inappropriate for kids. (Programs such as Surf- Watch will help parents block their kids from obtaining access to such sites, either accidentally, which happens more than you would like to imagine, or intentionally. These programs can be found in any computer store.)
There are a variety of newsgroups on the market today, and many Web browsers come with the software you need to access newsgroups. With these programs, subscribing and unsubscribing is just a simple point-and-click activity. In this case, subscribing means that the news reader software will check with the news server each time you load the reader and see if there are news postings in the newsgroups to which you have subscribed that you have not read yet. If so, you will be presented with a series of headers that give you an idea of what will be contained in the whole message if you choose to read it.
Posting to newsgroups is also very easy. It used to be very common to have separate news reading and posting software, but that is no longer the case. Almost all of the readers available today come with the posting software built in. While you are reading, an icon at the top of the screen will allow you to start a post. A news posting is just like e-mail: you type what you want to say and then send it off. The only difference is that this message will then be transported to thousands of computers around the world, and as many as 5 million people will read it! There are an estimated 5 million active news readers in the world today—three times the circulation of the Wall Street Journal.
One way to find out what newsgroups might be of interest to you is to simply start the newsgroup software and then browse your way down the top-level categories, working your way down the hierarchy until you find what you want. (See "Newsgroup Categories.") This can be a time-consuming task. Fortunately, some tools have been designed to make the job a bit easier. For instance, there is a site at the University of Illinois—Champaign/Urbana that will search the titles and descriptions of newsgroups and List Serves for a particular keyword, such as "legal." That site is http://www.cen.uiuc. edu/cgi-bin/find-news.
Another excellent place to find out more about newsgroups is http://www.kentlaw.edu/lawnet/ lawnet.html. This Web page is the home of the Legal Domain Network (LDN). The LDN is a joint venture between several law schools, including the Center for Information, Law and Policy at Villanova. Its goal is to give viewers a look at the various discussion lists that are available on the Internet that are specifically geared toward the practice and teaching of law. n
Lowell Wilson is a lawyer with the firm of Borinsky, Ramsey and Cook, LLC, in Columbia, Maryland. He is a regular speaker on Internet and other technology topics at Maryland State Bar Association programs.