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Beware of Righteous Lawyers

By: Scott Bradner

This week I was going to continue discussing the results of the Seattle IETF meeting, but the events a week ago bring me back to another topic that I claimed I would revisit. Back on March 14th I started talking about the problems of locating services on the Internet and the lengths to which some people have gone in trying to overcome the obscurity of their products; i.e. advertising.

As many of you already know, about two weeks ago a couple of lawyers (actually a lawyer couple) sent a message to hundreds of usenet newsgroups soliciting business for their law firm. Of all of the newsgroups that the message went to, there were only a few whose stated subject had the slightest relevance to the service being offered. The message went, apparently indiscriminately, to newsgroups dealing with the hard sciences, pets, food and deviant sexual behavior.

A few days later the lawyers were featured in a New York Times story about the event. The story included a picture of the lawyers sitting next to a computer and looking, to me, a bit smug. In the story the lawyers said that they were not particularly concerned about the large negative reaction since there had also been enough queries for their services so that they felt the whole thing had been "immensely profitable".

The lawyers maintain that they did nothing wrong and broke no laws. The widespread posting did cause the messages to traverse the U.S. government sponsored NSFnet which does have an appropriate use policy in place that would prohibit this type of solicitation. The message also traversed many other networks in the U.S. and world-wide that have similar restrictions. However, there may be no specific laws that apply to the situation.

The Times story focused on what it felt was an almost hysterical anti-commercial reaction by Internet old-timers. The implication was that the Internet was a good place for business and that some of the people who complained should wake up and see reality.

I think that the Times story fundamentally misunderstood the problem that this type of occurrence portends. The problem is not commercial vs. non-commercial. The problem is one of scaling. This one message traveled to perhaps as many as a half million sites around the world. Each site got the same message many times. This consumed communications and storage facilities at each of these sites. Even if the cost of each message at each site were less than a cent, this one message had people around the world paying a whole lot of money to receive a message that few wanted.

This is just one case. How many Internet sites would continue to accept news feeds if this type of approach were to become common? There are hundreds of thousands of businesses on the Internet. If even a small percentage of them took the same cavalier attitude about the resources of others, the level of unwanted traffic could quickly submerge the useful content. I would hope that wiser and less selfish heads will prevail.

This incident reminded me of a cartoon by Wiley from a wonderful book called 'Dead Lawyers and other Pleasant Thoughts'. The cartoon is titled 'word origins'. A bunch of people is shown in a cave, all but one holding his nose. That one is looking at the bottom of his foot. One of the people is saying 'Aw, Jeez, who stepped in a pile of lawyer?'

Disclaimer: This can't be Harvard's idea since they did not know I was going to say it.