Web 3.0 and the Law

The semantic web is coming. The fact that it’s been heralded more often than “the wolf,” shouldn’t deafen us to the the essential truth: slowly but surely Web 3.0, the semantic web is arriving. After all, the wolf did actually show up, as I recall.

What is it? And why should lawyers care? There are two typical answers to the second question, as is usually the case when technology is the subject: lawyers should care first because the change will (eventually) alter the way in which they research, prepare and present documents, and second because as the technology goes mainstream legal issues will arise. A recent article on the Society for Computers and Law website, “The Semantic Web: Legal Challenges” by Brian Harley, Philip Nolan, Liam Ó Móráin and Mark Leyden, explores both aspects of the semantic web.

The semantic web, to put it in simple terms, is a set of technical arrangements affecting web documents aimed at labelling the data they contain so that it can be extracted and combined with data from other web pages. For example, on a properly marked up page book titles can be recognized as such, as could the name of an author of that book. Clearly in order to enable this, there has to be a great deal of standardization in the way we code, or “label,” information when we create a web page. It should be easy to achieve this with respect to “simple” things such as books, their titles, their authors, publication dates etc., in part because we’ve been developing (and arguing about) standards for cataloguing these objects for years.

More difficult will be the application of an ontology to law, a catalogue, if you like, of objects we recognize and would like to treat as (at times) distinct and of interest. Yet, law lends itself quite well, in my view, to this sort of “semanticization.” Cases, styles of cause, citations, etc. are recognized as objects now, for example. And a moment’s thought can throw up dozens of other objects of interest that might become items in the legal ontology that will — not may — define and enable the assembly and disassembly of legal documents in the near future.

This is not a matter of magic — machines miraculously recognizing the faces of justice — but of hard, detailed and contentious work by the same people who are today assembling and disassembling the legal documents we use now. At least, it should be. If the legal profession doesn’t pick up the task, however, it will be assumed by those “outsiders” who see the lucrative potential in serving up “smart” legal documents, and they will get to set the terms and means whereby legal information is managed.


  1. I see this development as nothing more than a gadget; it will give the illusion that research is being done—even being done in a new way—when all that is actually happening is that we will simply be multiplying (our access to) snippets of information. Research involves thought; staring at a wall and struggling to understand or express difficult concepts and, what’s particularly important, trying to see connections between things; things that might not be initially thought to be connected but which are and often in deep and interesting ways. What Web 3.0 seems to offer is a further development of exactly the tendencies that I have deplored, viz., the balkanization of the law and substitution of cases with the same facts for cases where the same principles might be engaged.

    We have got to stop and assess what doing good research entails; we have got to pause and have (or search for) a Pirsig moment. We have not so far done that and, with each technological development, it becomes harder to stop and see where we’ve arrived and whether it is a good place to be and what the alternatives are.

  2. I don’t see it so much as combining snippets of information, and not meant to replace the real research that we value since that does involve deep thinking. I believe it is meant to pull content together in new ways faster and more easily so that we can spend time actually reading it rather than looking for it, and perhaps even deriving information we may not have had before–that is, combining information from one source with data from other sources to give a more in-depth picture of things. Rather than just overview, it might allow for more “deep diving” to see trends in data we might not have seen previously. Semantic web may be a KM director’s dream come true, but I don’t think it will replace our need to think. I agree with Angela that computers won’t ever replace our need for critical thinking. We will still need to pay attention to what is pulled up, whether the sources are accurate, complete and current, whether what they are showing us makes sense in the context of our work. And then we will have to think to apply what we have learned from the information pulled up. That won’t change.

    My biggest question is though how all of this data is going to be structured and have metadata applied to facilitate this. I’m not sure how realistic this is going to be, given that many organizations have a difficult time applying extensive structure and metadata to their own internal documents, much less external ones they are sharing. Maybe there will be a way to automate it but I remain skeptical at this point. Happy to be proven wrong though.

    If anyone in the Toronto area is interested, there is a fairly new Semantic Web Meetup Group that gets together on a monthly basis to explore what the semantic web is/might be. The group is exploring the issue not specifically with regard to law, and tends to be quite “techy” so won’t be for everyone– http://www.meetup.com/Toronto-Semantic-Web-Meetup-Group/ I attend as I have time to try to help get my head around this and have my many questions answered.

  3. I would respectfully have a different take on this subject than Angela, but only to invite a more thorough exploration of the opportunities that the semantic web offers. Angela is certainly right in emphasizing the importance of expressing difficult concepts and deep connections between legal ideas. What the semantic web offers is the opportunity to technologically capture and automatically create these exact conceptualizations.

    I agree that there is often an intersection of intuition and reason behind great legal work. Semantic web structures provide the opportunity to have software start seeing these deeper connections and share them with us.

    Instead of sorting through a simple database of keynote cases that may or may not be of help from a greater philosophical standpoint, semantic web coding can let software point us to a much wider range of useful alternatives based on principles. Of course, any semantic web ontology will have inherent biases and limitations, and should never be a substitute for critical thinking by a lawyer. In fact, semantic web software gives us the opportunity to create feedback loops, allowing programmers and the software itself to learn from its failures and improve even more. Ultimately, this does present a tremendous opportunity to improve our productivity.

  4. The big differences Web 3.0 will bring to law come from the core value propositions of the Semantic Web. For one – our data (a.k.a. knowledge) will answer questions we haven’t yet thought to ask. From my experience inside a firm – that’s a core value lawyers bring to the table. When a litigator develops a unique case strategy, applying the law in a new and useful way, they are doing something similar. In Web 3.0 our data and systems will be discover insights (trends, fact relationships, etc.) lawyers may have missed or not completely captured.

    All we have to do is turn our DMS’s into massive sets of triples.

    Which is to say, this is going to take a while.