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Introduction to the Internet

Prepared by Diane Murley, SIU Law Library

A.     Internet Basics

The Internet can be described as a network of computer networks. There are federal networks, regional networks, foreign networks, campus networks, and private networks. Each of these networks cooperates by using the same protocols, or rules, to form a super network and make it available to their respective users. It is impossible to estimate how many computers, files or persons are on the Internet.

The Internet originated with U.S. Defense Department network called ARPAnet. It was designed to function even if part of the network was damaged, destroyed, or otherwise unavailable. At about the same time, the National Science Foundation was developing five supercomputer centers to be made available for any scholarly research. The design of the Internet is the result of these two original uses.

Any computer on the Internet can communicate with any other computer without a direct connection. To connect every computer to every other computer would be impossibly expensive and inefficient. Furthermore, if the direct connection became unavailable, there would be no backup. Therefore, the Internet was designed so that communications could travel along any path through the network between the two computers. Because of the large number of computers on the Internet, there can be many possible paths.

To make communications faster, information is sent in small packets. The packets may travel different paths between the originating and receiving computers. Internet Protocol (IP) is used to address the packets so they all arrive at the same destination. The receiving computer must have a way to determine if all of the packets have been received and if they have been reassembled in the correct order. That is where Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) comes into play. It numbers the packets and adds information so the receiving computer can calculate if all the pieces have been received.

While the Internet is the network over which information can be shared, the Web is the content. Specifically the term Web refers to documents published on the Internet using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Hypertext documents contain links that allow the user to move from document to document simply by clicking with a mouse. The beauty of Web documents is that they can be read by any computer connected to the Internet, whether its operating system is Mac, Windows, UNIX, or something else.

This is a very superficial overview of the Internet and the Web. The good news is that you don't have to understand the technology to use it. Thanks to user-friendly interfaces, transmission of information over the Internet seems virtually instantaneous, and the technicalities are invisible. However, a basic understanding of how the Internet and Web work will help you to be a better researcher.

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B.     Definitions

ASCII:  American Standard Code for Information Interchange. A set of numbers that correspond to letters and other characters. This acts as a common language, which allows all computers to present plain, readable text.

ASP:  Active Server Page. HTML page, ending in the suffix .asp, that includes one or more small embedded programs that are processed before the page is sent to the user.

Blawgs:  blogs about law-related topics.

Blogs:  short for weblogs. Generally, a website in the form of a journal, with daily or frequent entries. Blogs can cover a single topic or an eclectic mix, they can have one author or allow contributions by others, and they can include original commentary, links to other sites, or both.

Boolean Logic:  Named for 19th-century Irish mathematician George Boole, Boolean Logic is a system of representing the relationship between words to create concepts. It commonly uses the connectors AND, OR, and NOT. Most search engines allow queries in the form of Boolean statements, but, unfortunately, they all use a slightly different Boolean system.

Bps:  Bauds per second. Used to measure modem speed.

Browser:  The software used to connect to sites on the Web. Two of the more popular graphical web browsers are Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.

CFML:  ColdFusion Markup Language. Used to create web pages, ending in the suffix .cfm, that are developed dynamically from a database as they are served.

CGI:  Common Gateway Interface. Programs that allow Web pages to be interactive. Some CGI programs run online forms; others allow searching databases or filling online "shopping carts" with virtual merchandise.

Client:   The computer or software that connects to a remote computer. Usually refers to the local computer you are using to retrieve information on another computer.

Database:   A collection of data that is organized so that its contents can easily be accessed, managed, and updated.

Deep Web:   Also known as the Invisible Web. This topic is discussed in more detail in Using the Internet for Legal Research: The Invisible Web .

DSL:  Digital Subscriber Line. A technology for bringing high-bandwidth information to homes and small businesses over ordinary copper telephone lines. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) is marketed as the successor to ISDN.

DNS:  Domain Name System. See part F, below.

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FAQ:  Frequently asked questions. A file available at many Internet sites that provides the answers to recurring questions.

Flame:  A hostile e-mail or posting to a listserv.

FTP:  File Transfer Protocol. Program used to transfer files from one computer to another.

GIF:  Graphics Interchange Format. An image file with a name ending in the suffix .gif.

Gopher:  Internet site organized by hierarchical menus of directories and subdirectories. Contains files and links to other sites.

GUI:  Graphical User Interface. Software that uses graphics and mouse clicks to perform its functions. Pronounced like "gooey."

Host:  A remote computer to which you connect from your computer.

HTML:  Hypertext Markup Language. The formatting used to create Web pages. Uses links to connect to other files on the same or distant computers.

Http:  Hypertext transfer protocol. Program used to connect to sites on the Web. Seen at the beginning of URLs for websites.

Https:  Secure hypertext transfer protocol. A Web protocol that encrypts and decrypts user page requests as well as the pages that are returned by the Web server.

Hypertext and hypermedia:  Types of document that contains links to other files, which you use by pointing and clicking with your mouse.

Invisible Web:  In general, the Invisible Web is that part of the Web that search engines cannot or do not index. This topic is discussed in more detail in Using the Internet for Legal Research: The Invisible Web.

IRC:  Internet Relay Chat. Anyone with this software can connect to an IRC server and join a conversation on a given topic. These conversations are frequently referred to as Chat Rooms. The software can also be used for real time customer assistance at shopping and other sites.

ISDN:  Integrated Services Digital Network. A phone line connection that delivers text, audio and video much faster than through an ordinary modem. ISDN represents a significant improvement in speed over standard telephone system modems, ranging from 64K to 128K. An ISDN connection also allows several computers, or a small law office network, to share one Internet connection.

ISP:  Internet Service Provider. Firm that provides any of a number of Internet Services.

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Javascript and Java Applets:  Classes of programs (quite distinct classes of programs; the similar names are the result of a marketing war between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems) that enable Web page interactivity, but in a more sophisticated fashion than CGI. The uses for these programs range from animating images on websites to high-level database consultation and running server-side applications.

JPEG:  An image file with a name ending in the suffix .jpg. JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the original name of the committee that wrote the standard.

Link:  The point in a Web or Gopher document that allows the user to connect to another file by clicking with the mouse or pressing the enter key.

List Server:  The computer software that makes a listserv possible.

Listserv:  An automated mailing or discussion list.

News aggregators:   See news readers.

News readers:   A type of software that retrieves and organizes content from RSS web pages, such as news sites and blogs, to which the user has subscribed. Every time the news reader software starts up, a display shows the most recent updates for each subscription.

PDF:  Portable Document Format. A protocol used to transfer documents as graphical images over the Internet. When printed out, PDF files look like photocopies of the original documents. PDF files generally cannot be edited. Requires Adobe Acrobat software.

POP:  Post Office Protocol. Used for receiving e-mail.

PPP:  Point to Point Protocol. A protocol for operating TCP/IP over phone lines.

Protocols:  Agreed-upon sets of instructions that computers use to access different types of Internet resources or perform other Internet functions. There are several major protocols, each associated with different Internet media. In the early days of the Internet, you needed different software for each of these functions. Now, most browsers bundle several protocols into one system, so you move seamlessly from media to media. The most common protocols you will use on the Internet are TCP/IP, PPP, HTTP, FTP, POP, SMTP, and Telnet.

RDF:   Resource Description Framework; a general framework for describing an Internet resource by application of XML; developed by the World Wide Consortium (W3C).

RSS:   RDF Site Summary; method of describing news, announcements, forum postings, or other Web content for distribution by an online publisher. A special program is usually required to read RSS-distributed information, but many such programs can be downloaded for free.

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Search engine:  Internet tools that allow you to search large databases of Internet sites. These are discussed in more detail in Using the Internet for Legal Research.

Server:  A remote computer or software that makes information available or performs some function for a user via a client computer.

SHTML:  Server-side include Hypertext Markup Language. Web file, with the suffix of .shtml, that includes some information that will be added "on the fly" by the server before it is sent to you.

SLIP:  Serial Line Internet Protocol. A protocol for operating TCP/IP over phone lines.

SMTP:  Simple Mail Transport Protocol. Used for sending e-mail.

Spam:  Unwanted e-mail. Usually refers to the mass mailing of commercial solicitations.

T1 connection:  Dedicated Internet access. A full T1 connection is capable of 1,544K. Fractional T1 is sometimes available from ISPs, in increments of 256K, 384K, 512K, and 768K.

TCP/IP:  Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. The computer language that allows computers on the Internet to transmit data.

Telnet:  A program that allows you to connect to a remote computer. Many library catalogs were available using Telnet before the introduction of web-based online catalogs.

Trojan horse:   A virus hidden inside apparently harmless programming.

URL:  Uniform Resource Locator. The standard way to refer to an Internet file location and the protocol necessary to locate it. For example, http://www.law.siu.edu/lawlib/ is the URL for the SIU School of Law Library. URLs can also begin with gopher://, telnet:  or ftp://.

Viruses:   Pieces of computer programming code that can damage your computer or erase data from it. Viruses can be transmitted via attachments to e-mail, downloads, diskettes, or CDs. They are frequently disguised as something else and designed to automatically spread to other computers. They can cause immediate damage or lie dormant until a certain time or event.

Weblogs or web logs:  see blogs.

World Wide Web:  Also referred to as the Web. Multimedia Internet sites connected by hypertext links that can contain text, graphics, sound and video.

Worms:   Self-replicating viruses that duplicate themselves until they have consumed so much memory that the computer no longer functions properly.

XML:  Extensible Markup Language. Used to describe the content of a web page in terms of what data is being described.

For more definitions, consult http://whatis.techtarget.com/.

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C.     Computer Viruses

Your computer should have virus software, such as Norton AntiVirus or McAfee VirusScan, and you should keep the virus definitions up to date. You should also be sure to install Microsoft security and critical updates.

Viruses can be transmitted via e-mail attachments, downloads, diskettes, or CDs. The person from whom you received the virus was probably unaware their computer was infected. Some viruses can be quite harmful, erasing data or causing your hard disk to require reformatting.

Besides having up-to-date virus software, you should be very careful about opening e-mail attachments that you are not expecting, even if they come from someone you know. A recent e-mail virus was dubbed an "Internet IQ test" by the New York Times, because "[a]nyone who has not learned the most important computer security message of the last two years—do not open any unexpected files that come attached to e-mail messages—ends up infecting the computer." John Schwartz, They Looked, They Clicked, a New E-Mail Virus Conquered, N.Y. Times C10 (Dec. 5, 2001).

Virus warnings circulated by e-mail are so often hoaxes that an entire website has been dedicated to their debunking. Before you forward any virus warnings you receive, please check them out at http://vmyths.com/. Both Norton and McAfee also have pages listing the latest real threats as well as the hoaxes. More importantly, check Vmyths.com before you take any action based on a mass e-mail warning. A couple of years ago, a warning went around advising people to delete a certain file from their computers. It was true that a virus was circulating under that file name. What the warning did not mention was that all computers have a file by that name, and it should only have been deleted if, in fact, it was infected. When in doubt, check with an expert that you know. Most of the hoax warnings refer to some specific authority, such as "IBM has warned that XXXX is the most dangerous virus ever." This is referred to as False Authority Syndrome (see http://www.vmyths.com/fas/fas1.cfm for more info).

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D.     E-Mail Etiquette and Security

Electronic mail is usually referred to as e-mail. E-mail is faster than the U.S. Postal Service (which is sometimes called snail mail on the Internet) and other document delivery services. It is less intrusive than the telephone and allows you to transmit large amounts of information quickly and accurately. Long distance charges are usually not an issue. You can send e-mail at any time, and the recipient can read it and respond when convenient. Unlike faxed documents, documents exchanged by e-mail can be edited by either party.

Internal e-mail can be informal, but e-mail to clients, other law firms, and other outside parties should look professional. Because of its nature, e-mail is easily forwarded to others. Furthermore, it has a very long shelf life. Even after you and the recipients delete it from your computers, it may be archived on your e-mail server and the e-mail servers of everyone to whom you sent the message and of everyone to whom it was forwarded. In short, proofread and think before you send that message. Always double-check the addresses to which the e-mail will be sent. It is too easy to send an e-mail message to the wrong person or persons. And it is almost impossible to get it back.

If your e-mail will include confidential information or attach confidential files, you must consider security. The security issues your firm needs to consider are beyond the scope of this document. There is a good discussion of these issues in Kenneth J. Withers, The Internet Guide for Massachusetts Lawyers (2d ed., MCLE 1999).

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E.     Current Awareness Tools


The term "blog" is short for web log. Like many things relating to the Web, blogs are constantly evolving. Generally, a blog is a website in the form of a journal, with daily or frequent entries. Blogs can cover a narrow or broad topic or an eclectic mix. Some blogs have one author; others allow comments or contributions by others. They typically include original commentary and links to other sites.

Law-related blogs are sometimes referred to as blawgs. A good source for more information about blawgs is Blawg:  Your Source for Law & Legal Related Weblogs at http://blawg.org/. Blawg includes a directory of blawgs, as well as articles and other resources. Another good source for blawgs is other blawgs. Bloggers frequently link to each other, and many blogs include a list of the blogs followed by the author(s).

More and more people are reading blogs using news readers (also known as news aggregators). News readers use a type of software that retrieves and organizes content from web pages, such as news sites and blogs, to which the user has subscribed. Every time the news reader software starts up, a display shows the most recent updates for each subscription.


List servers are computers that automatically disseminate messages posted to all subscribers of listserv discussion groups. There are thousands of listservs, on a wide variety of topics, to which you can subscribe. Listservs usually have two e-mail addresses. The first is used to make an administrative request to the listserver, e.g., to subscribe to or unsubscribe from the list. Messages sent to this address should generally have no subject line, no signature block, and no extraneous characters. These messages are handled by a computer. What would be considered polite between humans will simply confuse the computer.

The other address is used to post messages to the list. Subscribers of a listserv send e-mail messages to the second address, and the messages are automatically forwarded to all subscribers. One of the most common mistakes made by new listserv subscribers is to send administrative messages to the second address. When that happens, the administrative request cannot be granted, because it was never received at the appropriate address, but everyone on the list receives the request.

Sending only e-mail that is professional in appearance is doubly important with listservs. Since any message posted is sent via e-mail to hundreds of subscribers, it will end up on the e-mail servers of all those subscribers, and everyone to whom they forward it. The list may also have an official archive of old postings. A bad impression can go a very long way and last virtually forever.

In posting to a listserv, you should be careful not to say something that will compromise a client confidence or reflect poorly on your firm. You should also be aware of Netiquette, the basic rules by which Internet communications are governed. Be brief and polite, use a descriptive subject line, limit your posts to the subject matter of the listserv, and use a signature block. In replying to a posting, post enough of the previous message to identify it for readers of your message, but do not quote extensive passages. Also, be aware of whether you are replying to the individual or the list. Different e-mail programs have different defaults as to who will be sent a reply to a listserv message.

When you subscribe to a listserv, you will receive a confirmation message. This message usually contains information about the list, including how to unsubscribe and how to postpone messages when you will be away from your computer for any length of time. Keep this information. It may also be a good idea to review the archives or to subscribe to a list and read but not post, until you get a feel for the list.

When you go on vacation unsubscribe from your listservs or postpone messages. E-mail boxes fill up quickly and start bouncing messages back to the sender. These bounced messages can cause you to be automatically unsubscribed from a list. Furthermore, if your mailbox is full, you may miss important personal e-mail.

It is even more important to unsubscribe if your firm's e-mail system uses automated messages to advise anyone sending you e-mail that you are out of the office. Such automated messages to a listserv are then disseminated to the list, including to your e-mail address, which will generate another automated message, causing a vicious cycle.

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F.     Addresses and Domain Names

Every computer on the Internet has an IP address, which is a series of numbers separated by periods. Because people find it easier to remember names, most Internet computers or services on computers also have names. When you enter a name into the Location or Address field of your browser, it sends the name to a domain name server to be translated into the IP address.

When naming computers began, a system had to be set up to assign names so that no two computers would have exactly the same name. As the Internet continued to expand, the responsibility of assigning names to computers had to be divided up. The system that developed is the Domain Name System. Originally, there were six top-level domains, designated by the three letters at the end of the computer name:

  • .gov was used for non-military governmental organizations;
  • .com was used for commercial organizations;
  • .edu was used for educational organizations;
  • .mil was used for the military;
  • .net was used for network resources; and
  • .org was used for other organizations.

These domain designations are still used, but two-letter domains have been added to allow countries to be responsible for their own naming. There are hundreds of these two-letter territorial domains. When used for United States names, the two-letter designation is proceeded by another two-letter designation to indicate the state. For example, Illinois domain names would end in il.us.

In 2000 the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN) added seven top-level domains:

  • .aero for the air transport industry;
  • .biz for businesses;
  • .coop for non-profit cooperatives;
  • .info for information sites;
  • .museum for museums;
  • .name for individuals; and
  • .pro for accountants, lawyers, and physicians.

Each domain in an Internet address is separated by periods. For example, in law.siu.edu, edu refers to the educational domain, siu to Southern Illinois University, and law to the School of Law. The pieces of the domain name tell you who is responsible for that part of the name system, not necessarily who is responsible for the computer or where the computer is located. However, there is enough overlap that you can make an educated guess based on the domain name.

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For Further Information:

Chris Sherman and Gary Price, The Invisible Web :  Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See (CyberAge Books, Information Today 2001).

Kathy Biehl and Tara Calishan, The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press 2000)

Herbert N. Ramy and Samantha A. Moppett, Navigating the Internet :  Legal Research on the World Wide Web (Fred B. Rothman 2000)

Jerry Lawson, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA 1999)


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