Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Below the Surface Web.

During the ABA Techshow I had occasion to attend an educational session entitled “The Deep Dark Web”. You may have heard of the dark web in the news when in October of 2013 the FBI shut down the notorious online illicit market: The Silk Road. The Silk Road was part of the dark web, a term which some have used synonymous with the term deep web. This usage however is incorrect, since the dark web and the deep web are distinguishable.

To understand the distinction between the deep and dark webs I will first explain the surface web. The surface web is the topmost level of the web. It consists of the websites with which you are most familiar: Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. The surface web is estimated to contain about 4% of the information available on the internet. The main distinction between the surface web and the deep web is that the surface web is indexed by the major search engines such as Google while the rest of the internet is not.

Neither the deep web nor the dark web are indexed. The distinction between the deep web and the dark web is anonymity. While other darknets exist, the most commonly identified darknet is accessed using the Tor browser. Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, is a web browser based on the same source code as Firefox.Unlike Firefox the Tor browser sends communications through a distributed anonymous network and thus can be used to hide the identity of both the person viewing and the operator of a website. It is important to note that while the anonymity of the Tor network (coupled with unregulated currencies such as Bitcoin) made the illegal online marketplaces possible, there are also legitimate uses for such anonymous networks such as secure communications for non-governmental organizations, to circumvent censorship, or to allow journalists to communicate with whistle-blowers or dissidents.

So how do you find information in the deep and dark webs?

Since the deep web includes the information connected to the internet but not indexed by the popular search engines it may prove difficult to find unless you know what you are looking for. Some helpful websites include the WWW Virtual Library which has been continually cataloging the web through the collaboration of volunteer experts since 1991. Deep Web Technologies has a page of several search tools which index various U.S. Government databases. Additionally, many government websites provide access to enormous amounts of data such as data.gov and gao.gov. Learning how to navigate the deep web can be a valuable tool for both legal academics and attorneys preparing appeals. For instance a search of Westlaw’s briefs database reveals that “GAO Report” came up in 323 U.S. Supreme Court case briefs. A similar search of law reviews and journals reveals that “data.gov” came up 67 times.

The dark web is more difficult to access but may be helpful to attorneys seeking certain information. For instance, prosecutors might work with police to set traps for would be criminals. Family law attorneys might also use the dark web to find residual evidence after the Ashley Madison website was hacked in 2015 and public websites were forced to take the leaked information down. Accessing the dark web starts with downloading the Tor Browser, but if you choose to do so: use caution. Simply accessing the dark web could draw the attention of the FBI or other less desirable attention should one of the natural denizens of the dark web decide you don't belong.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How useful is access to free state primary information?

I recently came across Sara Glassmeyer's State Legal Information Census: An Analysis of Primary State Legal Information, which examines access to states' primary materials in regards to the UELMA. The purpose of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act is to establish trustworthiness of online legal material by requiring that these materials be authenticated, preserved, and accessible, for use by the public on a permanent basis. As you can see from the Enactment Status Map below, only 12 states have enacted this law since 2011. Massachusetts is one of five states considering adopting it this year; Connecticut adopted it in 2013.

Although not a requirement of the UELMA, most states provide free access to their legal materials. See Artie's recent post on Free Websites for Massachusetts Primary Law. As the study points out, that access needs to be meaningful in order to be useful. I have been struggling with this myself when helping public patrons locate materials. How much instruction should be given? Is it enough to help them pull up a case without telling them about headnotes and how/why they need to validate their cases? Of course, these tools are available to patrons visiting the physical Library via our paid database subscription. These research tools are not available on states' official websites, where these (hopefully UELMA compliant) materials most likely reside.

Not surprisingly then, Glassmeyer's study found that adoption of the UELMA did not guarantee barrier free access to material. While the UELMA's prefatory information mentions that states have a responsibility to make their legal resources easily, and permanently accessible, enhanced features such as federated searching and validation tools are not addressed. See Pat's post on Casetext's free citator project, WeCite.

The fact that often information is available via multiple sites, while making it easily accessible, can complicate things. For instance, if you search for regulations in Massachusetts through the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website (the official publisher), you might think you have to pay to access this information, when you can access them free of charge on the Court's website.

In order to ensure access to these materials is meaningful, Glassmeyer suggests that states publish their information openly, allow for third parties to transform the information, and create citators.

What other features or research tools do you think are necessary to ensure meaningful access?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Constructing your search query more effectively

Last week Artie gave us some tips on searching legal databases more efficiently using terms and connectors. Now, let's look at developing a search query by identifying an issue statement and the main concepts before you even start typing something into the search box. By taking a few extra minutes before you start your search, you will get more relevant results.

Did you realize you are already developing a search query? When you start typing in keywords or phrases into the search box, you are thinking about what you want to find. Your query is what you typed in before you hit enter to perform the search. Even though your results may appear relevant, do you know that you found the information you need? Will you remember what you searched in a few minutes when you try and revise your query after finding other terms used by legislators, judges, and other researchers?

The following are some tips on how to develop and revise that query for better search results.

1.         Write down as much information about your research topic as possible. Consider:

What is the issue you are researching/legal question being answered?
What jurisdiction is relevant?
What type of law are you looking for?
What secondary sources do you investigate?
What specific source will you select to find the information?
What questions do you have?
What do you know? What don’t you know?

Then summarize your research topic in one sentence, wording it as a question. Make sure your topic can answer at least three of the following questions: who, what, when, where, why or how.

2.         Identify the main concepts of your research question. Main concepts in “Is insanity a defense for a defendant who is addicted to drugs and who has been arrested and charged with possession of drugs? are: possession and drugs and addict and insanity.  

3.         Using the concepts you identified, think of as many synonyms for those words as you can- both broad and narrow. Make certain you are using appropriate legal terminology. Write them down. I use the following, sometimes even just scribbled on my legal pad, to organize the concepts and synonyms:

One of our main concepts in our research question is drugs. We might want to add narcotics, and prescriptions, medication to our search query. Remember to use terms and connectors   described in last week’s blog, along with truncation. Descriptions of how to use these are found here: WestlawLexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law

4.         To avoid duplicate searches and ensure you can find your resource again, keep track of your searches. Be sure to track of database names, specific search query and filter limitations, and source citations of relevant material. 

This information will help you track your progress and successes as well as help you identify ways you can revise your search. If you do not keep track, this information is lost! Take advantage of folder systems on WestlawNext. Lexis, or Bloomberg, or digital workspace platforms like Zotero or Evernote to keep track of your searches and annotate your research. By keeping your research query notes organized, they are available you can refer back to throughout the research project.

Develop your search query before you even put your fingers on the keyboard and you will be amazed at the results! Don't forget you can stop by the reference desk and we will help you!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Searching legal databases more efficiently

Simply entering search terms into a legal database search box in the same way you might enter terms into Google is called Natural Language searching. Natural Language searching is the method of searching with which people are probably most familiar. Unfortunately while it is often the easiest way to do a search it may not be the best way. Terms & Connectors searching is an alternative way to use the search box in Westlaw, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law which can yield more efficient results.

Here are the links to the descriptions of various types of connectors available on Westlaw, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law.

I will not render exhaustive descriptions of each connector and their usage here but rather I will focus on using just one, the proximity connector.  This connector is common to all three of the major commercial databases (as well as several others).  Here, using Westlaw, we will compare some results between it and natural language searching.  This will show you how using the proximity connector can yield more efficient results.


A proximity search can be structured like this:

word1 /x word2

This search would find all documents in the database where word1 is within x number of words of word2.

Real property law example: ground lease in Massachusetts

Before starting this search I limited the jurisdiction to Massachusetts.  Entering ground lease in the search box as a natural language search results in 1,730 cases and 838 forms because the search algorithm picks up all cases which have both the words ground and lease.  Using the proximity search ground /1 lease puts those two words next to each other in the document and results in only 54 cases and 408 forms.   So if you have a task which involves ground leasing in Massachusetts you will have much less extraneous material to sort through by using a proximity connector.

Contract law example: purchase agreement in Connecticut

For this example I limited the jurisdiction to Connecticut.  Entering purchase agreement into the search box as a natural language search resulted in 6,697 cases and 2,088 forms.  Using the proximity search purchase /2 agreement returns 1,282 cases and 1,163 forms. Here again, using a proximity connector will return more targeted material.

The tip of the iceberg

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to efficient searching because we have only used one type of connector.  If we can increase the efficiency of searching this much using only a single proximity connector as opposed to natural language searching imagine what we can do if we apply several different types of connectors together to a search.  For more information about Terms and Connectors searching and other methods to increase your research productivity, please stop by the reference desk.