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A self anointed priesthood

by Scott Bradner

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 separation seemed to have been abolished, at least officially, in most modern societies but it looks like Texas is trying to bring it back.

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

At first glance this might seem to just be 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 non-lawyer might read them and learn something.

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

The issue is made much more difficult by the wide spread presence of junk information, ranging from the baseless theories of self trained and self identified "experts" to outright fraud. In the last few weeks there have been a spate of reports of sudden dramatic movements in the price of various stocks. In many cases the cause of the movement is an anonymous report in some on-line chat room. In one case the report was that a fake web page was constructed to look like one from a respected Wall Street financial analysis firm.

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

We will see many more cases like the one in Texas where an entrenched group tries to use the law to protect its income and we will see all to many cases where new laws will be crafted to counter some specific perceived on-line 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.