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    Technology: Assessing Information on the Internet

    How do you know what's behind that Web site? Healthy skepticism and critical evaluation techniques are basic lawyering traits that should be used when assessing the credibility of Internet-based information.

    Mary J. Koshollek

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 79, No. 11, November 2006

    Assessing Information on the Internet

    How do you know what's behind that Web site? Healthy skepticism and critical evaluation techniques are basic lawyering traits that should be used when assessing the credibility of Internet-based information.

    by Mary J. Koshollek

    "The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom." - Jon Stewart

    Mary J. KoshollekMary J. Koshollek, Marquette 1993, is director of information and records services at Godfrey & Kahn S.C., Milwaukee. She has taught Advanced Legal Research as an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School and is a frequent lecturer and author on legal research for professional associations. She serves on the board of the Private Law Libraries, Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries.

    Jon Stewart's view of the Internet is not so far from the truth when you consider that anyone in the world can post just about anything and have it spread around the Web. Spurious information is indeed a severe problem as the Web grows, and any Web searcher is advised to proceed with caution. This article provides guidance as you search and work to evaluate the information that you are gathering. Healthy skepticism and critical evaluation techniques are basic lawyering traits and should be applied to working with Internet-based information.

    Examples of the Problem and the Courts' Caution

    Excellent search engines like Google, and the Internet itself, have made it easy to look something up online rather than in a book. Simple search interfaces, worldwide coverage, and speedy results, usually with some kind of an answer at the top of result lists, all make Internet-based research a deceptively attractive way to harvest information in a busy world. However, a list of Web sites and their content should not be taken as reliable or current without further evaluation.

    A classic and often-cited example of the fallibility of information on the Web concerns the World Trade Organization (WTO). The official site for the WTO is at www.wto.org, and what purports to be the WTO's page is at www.gatt.org. When one reviews articles contained on the latter, it becomes apparent that, although appearing very similar to the official site, it is in fact counterfeit, especially when it notes the scheduled disbanding of the organization.

    Courts also are recommending cautious usage and critical evaluation, although some courts themselves use the Internet for background research, particularly in cases involving disputed trademarks.1 Note this excerpt from a Texas case in which U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent of the Southern District of Texas ruled against a motion by a seaman who was injured and wanted to use Web-found evidence to prove a vessel's ownership. Judge Kent wanted hard copy documentation on paper, referring to the Internet as "voodoo information." "While some look to the Internet as an innovative vehicle for communication, the Court continues to warily and wearily view it largely as one large catalyst for rumor, innuendo and misinformation," wrote the judge.2

    Interestingly, even well-respected sites may be viewed skeptically, as demonstrated by this line from a Pennsylvania case: "An Internet site determining distances [MapQuest™] does not have the same inherent accuracy as do professionally accepted medical dictionaries, or encyclopedias, or other matters of common knowledge within the community."3

    Despite this judicial mistrust, credible information is available on the Web to lawyers, and the Wisconsin judiciary has provided commentary on its use.4 Arming yourself with the following techniques to review a page, and then assessing the trustworthiness of the information presented there, can produce valuable results.

    First Look at the URL

    To Learn More

    Check information from a domain name registry site to determine the owner of the URL. Sites like WHOIS, and Central Ops Tools, will help reveal who is the registered owner. Even with university and library sites, there are pages that the institution does not oversee, so be sure to do a complete job of critical evaluation and not just rely on the domain name. When you have been linked to a file deep within a site, go up a few levels and look at the main page. The entire Web address also can provide clues, according to the "Virtual Chase," a Web site devoted to researching the Internet that is edited by Genie Tyburski of Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll LLP. The site has an excellent checklist of how to decipher a URL.5 The Virtual Chase also notes that codings such as a tilde (~) in the page's address usually indicate a personal home page, which isn't necessarily bad, but you should carefully check out the author.

    Look Around the Page

    1) Determine who wrote the page. As you review the page, look for phrases and words such as "about us," "history," or "philosophy." Check for anything that speaks to the sponsor's background or biography. Look for other publications by the author or publisher by doing a search on Amazon.com or in library catalogs.

    2) Check the date if one is available. Webmasters usually will indicate a date on which the page was last updated. This is especially important with statistical materials. A date older than a few months may indicate that a page has simply been abandoned. Also be aware that scripting on a page may automatically show a current date, although the content may not have been changed on that date.

    3) Hints to find the date if one is not available. Check associated materials like press releases and note if they are current or appear out of date. Are there upcoming events with dates in the future? If the internal clues within the site suggest that a page has not been updated recently, be sure to verify with a second source any information you obtain from the site. Lack of permanency of materials is a big concern, and something you find today may not be available in the future. Is it permanent information or something that will change in a week or a month or a year? Also, has the content migrated from one part of the site to another, making it impossible to cite? Note the date that you accessed the site and the URL on that date. Searches on Google may bring up what a page looked like when the search engine last indexed it, which may be different from when you accessed the page.

    4) Look for contact information. If the only available identification of a sponsoring entity is something enigmatic or nondescript, such as "Society for Policy and Developmental Affairs," be suspicious of the page's reliability. If the page is sponsored by a reputable person or organization, the page should include some other way to verify the sponsor's reputation, such as an email or postal address or a listing in an association directory.

    Evaluation of Content

    1) Are sources documented? As in the academic world, look for documentation or statements about the sources relied on. Are there notes or references? Was the information exactly repeated, or was it paraphrased in some way or not used in full? Get information from the primary source when possible, and try to verify information with two or more reputable sources that report the same information.

    2) Are there permissions? Note if there is respect for copyright or if permissions are granted. If a copyright symbol is presented, who holds the copyright? Check the registrations at the Copyright office.

    3) What do others say? There are techniques to show the traffic on a page, and an article by "Super Searcher" Mary Ellen Bates provides some assistance.6 She notes that Google and other search engines will show what sites connect to another site by using a specific search syntax. Use the "link:" syntax to search for pages that link to the page. (The format in Google is link:www.XXXX.com; the format in Yahoo and MSN is link:http://www.XXXX.com.) If you don't find another reputable site linking to the site you are evaluating, it may not be well-respected by experts in that field. Be aware that if this is a very new Web site, it may not have established a reputation. It also is a good idea to search on the author's name. Some well-known directories on the Web may link to the page as a reputable source. The Librarian's Internet Index, the WWW Virtual Library, and the Scout Report from the University of Wisconsin, are great places to check.

    4) Is there obvious bias? Does the source provide a balanced viewpoint? Or is its purpose to persuade or influence your thinking? Many well developed pages offer links to other pages on the same topic to invite comparison with the information presented. Pages that include links to opposing viewpoints are more likely to be unbiased than pages that offer only one opinion.

    5) What is the intent of the page? Was the site created for a stated reason? Is it possibly a hoax like the WTO example above or a satire? Check for outrageous humor and exaggerated text or photographs. Why is this information being posted - as information, as a public service, as a news source, as a research tool for academics, as a personal rant, or as a way to gain attention?

    6) Is the information on the page primary or secondary? Is the information a report of facts, such as a wildlife biologist's article counting cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the midwest in 2000, thus making it primary information, or is it an Internet newsgroup discussion about CWD, which makes it secondary information? Information is less reliable the further away it is from primary sources.

    7) Is the information provided on the page from official or nonofficial resources? Although government Web sites should be consulted early for statutes and administrative materials, be sure to check whether the entity considers the Web-based wording to be "official." This is especially true of Wisconsin materials from the Revisor of Statutes bureau.7 Are other hints presented on the authority of the information, similar to the authority provided by a recognized publisher?

    8) What is the scope of coverage? Is this Web site devoted to a specific jurisdiction, timeframe, or geographic region? Does it have a scope statement that covers what is included or excluded? Is this a site that requires a password or a subscription to access the content?

    9) Can you verify the information presented? Try to discover how information in a Web site was gathered and whether there is an explanation of the research method(s) used to gather and interpret that data. Note also whether the research methods outlined are appropriate to the topic and allow the research to be duplicated for purposes of verification. Are the sources the site relies on listed in a bibliography or are there links to the materials themselves? The site also should note individuals and sources that provided nonpublished data used in preparing the materials. Be careful if information is taken verbatim from the first source or if both sites have relied on content from the same source that is not in itself reliable or accurate.

    Final Thoughts

    Finally, remember that even though a page might not meet rigorous standards as a citable source, it may help you generate good ideas or point to other usable sources. Also, be sure not to stop your investigation at the first page you find - look around and make comparisons so that you can have several points of reference. And don't forget that books and hard copy reference materials are still valuable reference tools and sometimes the only way to get at certain types of information.


    1See Molly McDonough, In Google We Trust?: Critics Question How Much Judges, Lawyers Should Rely on Internet Search Results, 90 A.B.A. J. 30 (2004); David H. Tennant & Laurie M. Seal, Judicial Ethics and the Internet: May Judges Search the Internet in Evaluating and Deciding a Case?, 16 A.B.A. Prof. Law. 2 (2005).

    2St. Clair v. Johnny's Oyster & Shrimp Inc., 76 F. Supp. 2d 773, 774 (S.D. Tex. 1999).

    3Commonwealth v. Brown, 839 A.2d 433, 435-36 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003).

    4For a Wisconsin view on citability to Internet information, see Judge Daniel P. Anderson's outline from the State Bar of Wisconsin 2006 Annual Convention. Daniel P. Anderson, Should You Google on Appeal, 2006 State Bar of Wisconsin Convention Materials, Vol. 1 at 403 (May 2006).

    5Virtual Chase.

    6Mary Ellen Bates, Is This Information For Real.

    7See About the Wisconsin Statutes and Annotations.