On the Net* and the liberation of information that “wants” to be free** - A call for action by the United Nations, Universities, researchers, and development agencies, with reference primarily to international trade law, Ralph Amissah
2 - Past, present and future perspectives of information and the Net
In this section on the Net and information, we look first back in time, and then forward, from a number of different perspectives, to provide background as to the nature of the Net and some of its implications.
2.1 - Short historical perspectives
Short takes on: the importance of written information; the development of usability of the Net, and; the author's experience with the Net.
2.1.1 - The importance of writing in a historical context
Writing has been the primary vector for the advancement of higher learning (and certainly law). This may be because it is a concise medium for recording information, which can be carefully formulated before publication; it may be expanded upon or summarised; it may be dealt with in units of expression, which may be built upon if approved, and otherwise can be ignored or rejected; it provides building blocks for use in other works. No doubt much has been written on the subject. In any event as the means of dissemination of writing have improved, centres of higher learning have spread.3 The Net implies writing may be instantly available everywhere.
Paper libraries for all their merits impose limitations on the sharing of information and structure of education, easily recognised if contemplated. The library must be physically proximate to the user. Materials not contained within the library may not be easy to come by. Studies have to be designed so as not to have too many students doing research into the same topic, requiring access to the same materials - (undergraduate) students must be largely confined to textbooks and collections of study materials.
2.1.2 - A perspective on the usability of the Net
The first graphical browsers in 1993 made it clear to me that the Net was ready to be used by anyone, of whatever background, who had access, and a use for the information to be found there. These browsers largely removed the learning threshold required to obtain information from the Net. Now lawyers could use the Net if they had reason to. There were few legal resources on the Net.4 Describing the possibilities of the Net to potential users proved to be insufficient, as it appeared that few who had not experienced it in practice within their field of interest could perceive its value. Ananse/ ITL set out to demonstrate the usefulness of the Net, and to promote and provoke further activity.
The Net is currently undergoing a change similar to that which occurred in 1993, this time on the publication side. Publication has continually been simplified until it is now so simple that anyone with the right connection to the Net can publish. All that is needed in addition to a suitable connection to the Net is Internet server software, which can reside on your PC or elsewhere, and your Word Processor, which will allow you to save texts in several file formats including “html” the standard file format of the Net.5 The result is a totally new economics and dynamics of publishing.
2.1.3 - A brief history of the site Ananse/ ITL (International Trade Law)
In 1993 the ITL originally named Ananse6 was begun. The initiative was early, this was one of the very first law sites on the Web,7 and existed at a time when the Web had about 200 servers as compared with the millions that exist today. ITL was the first Web site dedicated to a given area of law on the Net, international trade law, and is to date recognised as the premiere site8 for international trade law materials9 and links to related information on the Net. It must be stressed however that this effort is experimental, and a demonstration of what is possible.
Several motives lay behind the development of Ananse/ITL, which also give a general idea of what it attempts to do. (a) Working within an academic environment, it was an opportunity to explore how the Net might be used in relation to legal research and education.10 (b) It facilitated access to international trade law materials, and had a community effect in that work once done, need not be repeated by others. Recognition that these materials, (which were of global interest) came from disparate sources and that they were more difficult to come by than they ought to be. (c) It was also clear that such a collection would be of interest and to the benefit of those in international law circles interested in promoting the harmonisation and unification of law. Primarily by increasing the availability of materials and thereby the awareness of such efforts, of their purposes and of related writings around the globe.11 (d) The fact that so many independent organisations lay behind the promotion of the different works made it difficult and unlikely for them to co-ordinate their initial efforts amongst themselves, or for anyone to ensure that they decide to build the bases for the public. Ensuring that the materials were available encouraged organisations to get involved with the Net, and take charge of their own publication there. (e) It provides a cost effective contribution in an area essential to development.12 (f) It offered a chance to explore how much, and by what means publication on the Net could be automated.13 (g) A personal interest in all the matters above. (h) Backing from IRV, the Law Faculty of the University of Tromsø, and excellent assistance at hand at various times, from such people as Geoffrey Armstrong, Tommy Johansen and Thomas Nordgård; (i) It was an idea whose time had come and it was necessary to demonstrate that this was the case.
"We have defined our objective broadly and generously as being:
“To investigate the potential of W3 as an information resource, with regard to legal research and education. This we plan to do taking a practical example, - focusing on international trade law as a limited and vitally important area of law that is of international interest”. [This we shall pursue as far as we are able.] This statement of “our objective” dates back to the project's conception in June 1993. It ought now be moderated, but its spirit remains unaltered. Within this time span The Web has proven its worth, independently of any individual's efforts or investigations - its creators apart.
“To explore, utilise and demonstrate the potential of the new IT mediums insofar as they pertain to our chosen subject area.” "
2.2 - The future: what is all this about the Net?
A brief look at the change the Net represents and its structure and dynamic with regard to information content.
2.2.1 - The future is not what it used to be: the Net alters what is possible and practicable
The Net is, somewhat paradoxically, infinitely large and small at the same time. With regard to information that can be stored, the Net provides unlimited space. In relation to subject matter this means it can accommodate any work from the most general to the most specific, of any magnitude, depth, breadth, scope and quality. At the same time, all information is proximate or adjacent to each other, there being no relevant “distance” in space or time between points within this space. The Net places all within its unlimited space on your desktop - whether it (your desktop or the information) is physically located in New York, Tokyo, Tromsø or Accra. The Net also has an infinite number of entry points14 for the addition (publishing) and extraction (printing, reading, browsing, surfing) of the information it contains. There is no limit to the number of users and information providers who may share this space. Each individual member can contribute. Publication is instantaneous, and change (updates, corrections, migration of location of information, deletions) can be effected immediately by whoever has control of the particular item of information.
Here is a brief summary of some of the advantages15 of the Net over a paper based system.16 (a) It allows much faster access and high speed searches of massive databases. (b) It allows for direction to other works by hyper-linking. (c) It allows for the building of different presentations based on the same material, according to requirement. (d) It requires less space, both in terms of storage methods - CD ROMS, hard disks, and in terms of the Net being all pervasive. (e) There is no degradation of the original text (though parts of the information may be destroyed or replaced). (f) Publication is instantaneous, updating is immediate. (g) A single published copy, is available world-wide. (h) A single publication is available in an unlimited number of copies to an unlimited number of users.
2.2.2 - Developmental and organisational dynamics within the chaos of the Net
The word “chaos” in the heading is used advisedly, in its newly acquired scientific meaning, not as synonymous with randomness or disorder, but rather of a system in which simple rules can lead to extremely intricate results.17
The features discussed under the previous heading mean that the Net is inherently scalable. Which in turn means that if there is sufficient motivation for individuals to publish in any given area and a certain threshold of active participation is achieved, the Net can become largely self-organising and self-sustaining. What follows in an explanation of what this statement means.
The Net is the size and “shape” of the information that is contributed to it. It may be referred to as “scaling” or scalable. Whether 1000 individuals each publish one useful document, or 1 organisation publishes 1000 useful documents, the Net grows by 1000 documents in the useful information it contains. There will always be a mix of active contributing individuals and institutions. And as stated regardless of the manner of contribution, there is no limit to the Nets size, (or quality). The effect is cumulative.18
Use of the Net results in a strong tendency for individuals and institutions to follow the example set by others with similar interests. This may be described as “patterning”. Each participant wishes to be published and that others will use and cite their work. The more participants there are of a kind with which one identifies (whatever that may be), the more interesting it becomes to participate. Example one: For universities and researchers alike publication is considered an important if not essential part of the existing tradition: for peer review, to demonstrate their calibre, and their contribution to the advancement of their field. The reward if successful is the promotion of themselves and their expertise through achieving critical acclaim, and having their work cited and built upon, and promoting themselves and their expertise. Each recognised university/ journal/ authority/ researcher that decides to avail themselves of the possibilities will attract others. Example two: For an organisation whose purpose is the harmonisation of international trade law, the objective is in having as many states as possible sharing the same rules of law, and achieving a common application of these rules in contracting states. This requires that these rules be known and further, is greatly assisted by having a shared body of experience from contracting states - court decisions, scholarly writings, etc. on how these rules apply in practice. A number of independent organisations share this interest, once one such organisation recognises the benefit and pursues this end using the Net, others are likely to follow. Patterning results in self-perpetuation.
Furthermore use of the Net has a high degree of sorting and quality control built in - this may be referred to as “self-organising.” Pathways are built between individuals and institutions that are particularly interested in each other's work. As suggested by the examples given in relation to self-patterning the result is that it is likely that works of greater merit will be cited more frequently than lesser works. Important works remain those of authorities (old and new or newly discovered), because the works of authorities are recognised as such and most frequently cited. Almost as important as the individual items placed on the Net, are the connections that develop between items within the Net. These connections can be seen as analogous to a neural network, with many pathways, some being strengthened, and others fading in importance.19
Authenticity of text may be assured through use of digital signatures.20
3. Prior to writing there was only the oral tradition; The first writing was done largely on immoveables - rock walls, wood. With paper, writing became moveable, but making copies was slow; The printing press made possible the mass production and distribution of texts, which greatly enhanced the spread of higher learning. Adapted from paper “Distance Learning in Cyberspace” Moira J. Simpson presented at the 4th International Conference on Substantive Technology in the Law School and in Practice, University of Montreal, Quebec, 3-6 July 1996.
4. Telnet applications and the traditional commercial databases, are not included in our discourse about the Net.
5. This is not to suggest that it can also be done in a more sophisticated and complicated manner, nor that there may important choices with regard to the most appropriate technologies.
6. After a spider of West African (Ghanaian) folklore, admired for its intelligence and industriousness. In the most popular fable with which Ananse is identified: Ananse collected for himself, all the information/knowledge/wisdom of the world. This Ananse intended should be stored securely in a secret place at a great height, out of reach of all other creatures. The repository of information was broken however, being accidentally dropped from this great height. As a result of this, the information was scattered even further afield than it had been previously, to the greater benefit of all creatures on earth.
7. Others active at the time included Cornell University, Legal Information Institute and Indiana University. Note: Web is short for World Wide Web or WWW, (it is a lot shorter to say than either).
8. By such other sites as: the United Nations; UNCITRAL; The Research Division of the WTO; The US Library of Congress; The Norwegian State Department; Cornell University Legal Information Institute; Yale University Library, United Nations Scholar's Workstation, and too many other Universities to mention. Excite® provides the following description: “This wonderfully full site explores issues of international trade law, complete with full-text treaties, conventions and laws (including GATT). Compiled by Ralph Amissah and hosted by the University of Tromso, Norway.”
9. The ITL provides information and links related to international trade law. The ITL presents the full texts and where relevant country implementation details of several of the most important conventions and other documents used in International trade. It presents these materials by subject (e.g. free trade, sale of goods, transport, insurance, payment), chronologically, and has information pages on trade related organisations. The ITL also maintains extensive links to other sites related by the subject international trade.
10. The work being conducted at a University institution this has been one of the most publicised objectives to date.
11. This objective was reflected in letters sent to the United Nations early in the project's development, requesting permission to publish their materials. The request (which was granted) stressed the importance of the widest possible dissemination of these materials.
12. This was an important motivation and personal justification behind the growth of presentation of materials beyond the subject matters covered within our syllabus, and is perhaps the strongest single argument as to why these materials should always remain free.
13. Much has been achieved through extensive use of the programming language Perl.
14. Those who are pedantic may point out The Internet is close to running out of address space (TCP/IP addresses). They will also be aware that The Internet Engineering Steering Group is working on the next generation addressing system IPng to rectify the problem before it occurs.
15. As to disadvantages. In the long term it is too early to tell whether there are any, apart from the requirement of a device with which to extract the information it contains. For those who require the restricted flow of information - whether for commercial or other purposes, the technology (if not the law) will develop to protect their need. In the short term there are a few. These include the fact that being new, it may in some cases require adaptation of some traditionally established patterns, and in other must be further developed to fit these patterns; and its volatility - being subject to change without notice, has to be thoughtfully dealt with as do problems of quality control - which as I shall explain is an overstated concern. That replication from the Net is unlimited poses challenges for many, who are dependent on the restricted flow of information .
16. These result from both the digitisation of text and characteristics of the Net.
17. Some of the most useful analogies / metaphors for understanding the Net both in relation to its structure, and development dynamic, can be made in relation to Chaos theory a branch of mathematics and physics. Chaos is not randomness or disorder, it examines non-linear systems in which simple sets of deterministic rules can lead to highly complicated (detailed) results, which cannot be predicted accurately. Much can be meaningfully drawn for example from the analogy between the Net and a fractal image. The similarities between aspects of the Net and Chaos theory - analogical or metaphorical - become more apparent on an examination of the subject. A good introduction is provided by “Chaos” James Gleick. Development of these ideas would requires a separate article.
18. Information can be deleted by individuals who originally put them in place, but equally once placed on the Net, if recongised as being of value prior to such deletion, can be saved by others and re-disseminated, subject to copyright restrictions, of which a it more is noted under section 4.3.
19. Apart from the more obvious connection with “hyperlinks”, this observation is equally true of search engines, of which there will continue to be more, many highly specialised and selective.
20. This is a short data string that characterises/identifies the document. It need not be unique, however: it should be very difficult to generate a document with a matching signature; and any change in the document should (with near certainty) result in a change in its signature. The result being that it is extremely difficult to alter the document and preserve the signature. Digital signatures are an important step in ensuring a reliable reference system.
Copyright: 1997 Ralph Amissah
SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022