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Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Back Linking, Forward Looking

Weblogs and judicial decisions seem fairly unrelated. The first are likely to discuss someone's pet, while the second are likely to discuss lap dancing. Or is it vice versa? I always forget. But there are some interesting dynamics in the world of weblogs that may ultimately impact how cases and statutes are published and used. Weblogs and the legal field both rely on a system of citation and precedent, and what webloggers are doing today, legal researchers may be doing tomorrow. Consider David Gallagher's article in the November edition of MIT's Technology Review: The Web's Missing Links: A new twist on the hyperlink makes wandering the Web twice as interesting. (You can access the start of the article at that link for free and/or without being a subscriber; Mena Trott says it may move from premium to free soon. Thanks to Kevin Heller for the link to the full article on David Gallagher's page.) Gallagher looks at how bloggers use referral logs and features like Movable Type's TrackBack, and writes,
Webloggers, or “bloggers,” say recent experiments with backlinking could benefit all kinds of online publishing. Instead of pointing readers only to sources for the item they have just read, backlinks also point to newer material that item inspired, making it easy to follow a path through the Web’s marketplace of ideas. And because they can be updated automatically to reflect new incoming links, backlinks turn static Web pages into active hubs of related information.
If you ever have done legal research, this should be sounding familiar. In the legal realm, we use citation services like Shepard's and KeyCite to track a case -- and particular reasoning within cases -- forward and backward, as other lawmakers pick up the discussion and develop the law. But there are differences between legal citators and weblog backlink systems. As West says of KeyCite, "Lawyer-editors put all cases and other information through a rigorous editorial analysis before the material can be added...," while weblog-related systems aggregate citations algorithmically, based on links. Legal citation services also are priced to reflect their dedication to accuracy. But legal citation services aren't always accurate. They miss things. Shepard's and KeyCite reports on a given case can yield different results. Imagine the improvements in accuracy, however, when "rigorous editorial analysis" takes a hit of some of the automated tracing and tracking features being developed in the weblog arena. Consider:
  • Courts and legislatures agree on standards for publishing and linking to opinions and statutes electronically, including a means of linking to distinct portions of an opinion or statute;
  • Legal citation services capture all the discussion-specific links in subsequent primary legal sources, as well as other sources using the standards, and exercise editorial discretion to weed out what they deem unimportant or extraneous;
  • Legal researchers have the option of performing their own searches, independent of citation services, that yield all the citing results (e.g., by typing "link:" and the appropriate URL into Google). Of course, they run the risk of getting "spammed" in the process, and otherwise pulling up material they may not want or need. (See When The Spam Hits The Blogs.)
  • In this scenario, legal citators improve accuracy and stay in business because their editorial judgment continues to have value. Legal research nevertheless becomes more accessible and less costly. This probably won't happen any time soon, but it's not difficult to see how techniques being tested in the weblog arena now may shape the way research is done and laws are made down the road.

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