A self-anointed priesthood

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 04/19/99

Once upon a time, ordinary people could not
read. Not only were they not taught how to
read, it seemed somewhat suspicious if they
learned on their own. Wise men and priests
did the reading and passed down their wisdom to the hoi polloi.

This sort of separation seemed to have been abolished, at least
officially. But now it seems as if Texas is trying to bring it back.

Earlier this year, Texas Judge Barefoot Sanders prohibited software
company Parsons Technology from distributing Quicken Family
Lawyer and Quicken Family Lawyer 99. The judge ruled that the
self-help software violated the Texas statute barring unauthorized
practice of the law.

At first glance, this might seem to be just a bit of excessive zeal or
income protection by the six lawyers on the Texas Unauthorized
Practice of the Law Committee who argued the case before the court.
But the implications are ugly indeed. Carried to an illogical extreme,
libraries would have to restrict access to law books and case histories
on the off chance that a nonlawyer might read them and learn

Just when the Internet is becoming an ever-more-useful source of
information on all sorts of topics, including the law, decisions such as
the one in Texas muddy the waters and raise considerable fear,
uncertainty and doubt in the minds of companies that would like to
provide services over the 'Net. If software can be declared an illegal
ersatz lawyer, what risk does a medical information database provider

The issue is made more difficult by the widespread presence of junk
information, ranging from baseless theories of self-trained and
self-identified "experts" to outright fraud. In the past few weeks, there
has been a spate of stories about sudden dramatic movements in
various stock prices. In many cases, the cause of the movement has
been an anonymous report in some online chat room. In one case,
reports pointed to a fake Web page that looked like one from a
respected Wall Street financial analysis firm.

There is a great temptation to create more-complicated laws to try to
deal with such situations. But as shown by the Texas case, one can
apply (or misapply) current laws to most of the problem situations.

We will see many more cases such as the one in Texas, in which an
entrenched group tries to use the law to protect its income. We will
see all too many cases in which new laws will be crafted to counter
some specific perceived online problem. What I do not expect to see
enough of are new laws to protect the general Internet user against the
entrenched special interests.

For example, it hardly benefits society when lawyers try to keep
people from understanding the law.

Disclaimer: Harvard trains lawyers, but please don't hold that against
us. In any case, the above are my own observations.