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.