A. Bulletin Board Systems

Often referred to simply as a BBS, a computer bulletin board system is the computerized equivalent to the bulletin boards commonly found in the workplace, schools and the like. Instead of hanging on a wall covered with notes pinned up with thumbtacks, computer bulletin boards exist inside the memory of a computer system.[4] Rather than walking up to a bulletin board and reading notes other people have left or sticking up notes of his or her own, the BBS user connects his or her personal computer to the " host" computer,[5] usually via a telephone line.[6] Once connected to the host computer, a user can read the notes (also referred to as messages or posts) of other users or type in his or her own messages to be read by other users. These Computer Bulletin Boards are referred to as "systems" because they often provide additional services or several separate "areas" for messages related to different topics.[7]

Bulletin board systems can be classified in a number of ways. Some are commercial BBSs run for profit, and some provide free access. One way to classify them is by the number of users the BBS can support simultaneously. The majority of BBSs run by hobbyists are single-user boards which means they can only be used by one person at a time. But some bulletin boards are able to support many users at the same time, often hundreds of users at once. Another way to differentiate between BBSs is by means of access: some are available only by direct dial, other BBSs are available through a network.[8]

There are a number of different things bulletin board systems allow one to do. As their name implies, their primary function is as a place to post messages and read messages posted by others. Whatever the user's interests, there is probably a BBS to cat er to it. However, like any communications forum, this can raise some serious First Amendment concerns over some of the potential uses, such as availability of pornographic material, defamation, etc.

Another use for bulletin board systems is the sending of electronic mail, or E-Mail, as it is commonly called. Electronic mail is a message that is sent from one computer user to another, occurring either between users on the same computer, or between users on different computers connected together in a network. Electronic mail is different from regular mail in three important ways. First, E-mail is provided by private parties and, thus, is not subject to government control under the postal laws.[9] However, it is under the control of the System Operator (often called the SYSOP) of the bulletin board system. This gives rise to the second issue - privacy. Unlike the U.S. mail, electronic mail is almost always examinable by someone other than the sender and the receiver.[10] By necessity, the communications provider may not only have access to all mail sent through the computer system, but may also have to keep copies (or "backups") in case of system failure.[11] Third, E-mail is interactive in nature and can involve almost instantaneous communication, more like a telephone than regular mail,[12] so much so that regular users of E-mail often refer to the U.S. mail as "snail mail."

Another service many bulletin board systems make available is the uploading and downloading of files.[13] A BBS providing a section of files for its users to download, can distribute almost any type of computer file. This may consist of text, software, pictures, or even sounds. Multiple user bulletin board systems are also frequently used for their "chat" features, allowing a user to talk to other users who are on-line (connected to the host computer) at the same time.[14]

B. Teletext and Videotex or Videotext

Another kind of computer information system is Teletext,[15] a one-way distribution system, generally run over a cable television system.[16] It sends out a continually repeating set of information screens.[17] By using a decoder, a user can select which screen he or she wants.[18] The decoder then "grabs" the requested screen and displays it as it cycles by.[19] Since Teletext is only a one-way service, a user can only read the information the service has available for his or her reading. There is no way for the user to contribute his or her own input to the system.

More advanced than Teletext is videotex [20] (often called videotext).[21] Videotex is a two-way service which usually uses a personal computer as a terminal.[22] When provided via a telephone, videotex is basically the same as any other computer information system discussed in this paper, so the terms "videotex" and "computer information system" are used synonymously for ease of discussion.

C. Information Distribution Systems

Computers are used frequently for distributing information of various types. E-Mail, mentioned above, is one type of information distributed among users of a computer system or between computers connected to a common network. Another common type of information distribution system is the database.[23] These services allow the user to enter a variety of "search terms" to look through the information the service has collected.[24]

Another type of information distribution system is the "file server."[25] A file server (or just "server") is a storage device, such as a disk drive or CD ROM, hooked up to a computer network, which lets any computer connected to it access the files contained on the server.[26] These files may consist of virtually anything, ranging from software to news articles distributed by a "news server." While file servers may be found as part of another computer information system, the server itself is used only f&127; or storing and retrieving files.[27]

Other network based information distribution services include the menu driven "gopher" server, WAIS (Wide Area Information Server), and the World Wide Web (WWW). A gopher server provides a standard interface to access diverse information sources on different parts of a network [28]. WAIS is a natural language search system for searching through diverse forms of information stored in a large database or across computer networks.[29] The World Wide Web is another method of accessing material on a computer network which works by following hypertext links.[30] Hypertext links are, for example, terms in a document which when selected call up other documents, (or sounds, pictures, or other materials) that are related to the selected term.[31] From these relate d documents, links can be followed to yet more documents related to the second set, and so on.

This paper will focus on file servers and databases, as the other network services mentioned are largely just advanced forms of accessing information stored on a file server or in a database.

D. Networks

A network is a series of computers, connected often by special types of telephone wires.[32] Many networks are conduits used to call up a remote computer in order to make use of that computer's resources from a remote personal computer or terminal.[33] Many networks allow a much broader range of uses such as sending E-mail and more interactive forms of communication between machines,[34] transferring computer files, and also providing the same remote access and use that the simpler networks allow.[35]

Some of these networks are so sophisticated and far-reaching that they provide an ideal communications medium for the computer literate. They can be used not only for personal E-mail, but they are also used for a number of special kinds of electronic publishing.[36]&127;

Copyright 1994 - 1995 by P-Law, Inc., and Kenneth M. Perry, Esq. All rights reserved. Reproduction is permitted so long as no charge is made for copies, no copies are placed on any electronic online service or database for which there is a fee other than a flat access charge, there is no alteration and this copyright notice is included.

Return to Table of Contents