Eskimo Snow and Scottish Rain: Legal Considerations of Schema Design

MD Policy Design-19990206

27 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 1999

See all articles by Joseph M. Reagle

Joseph M. Reagle

Berkman Center for Internet & Society; W3C World Wide Web Consortium

Date Written: February 1999


Eskimos have many words for snow; Scotts have numerous words related to rain. This concept has achieved near urban myth status--though it continues to be contentious amongst linguists [Who40]. The idea is compelling because it speaks to our belief that the mechanism of speech itself is a reflection or our world and what we wish to say. Within this paper I examine the mechanisms by which our computer agents will express and understand what we wish to say in order to form online agreements.

This paper is about semantics. Semantics is generally defined as the study of meaning. While the description seems vague, it is of immense importance to the practical field of computer protocol design. For a computer program to be useful, it needs to know what a token such as "reset" means. The process of defining semantics within a specification (the document which details the structure and operation of some technical design) is critical to the operation of the protocol. How one defines -- or is permitted to define -- those semantics can have an effect on the social context and purposes the protocol serves.

My purpose is to examine the relationship between protocol design, policy, and law in three parts. First, I focus on the definition of semantics within a protocol and two metadata technologies (XML and RDF). This technical introduction permits me to refer freely to the technical domain when I begin my policy and legal analysis. Second, I look at the processes by which metadata semantics are likely to be defined with respect to consensus, conflict, and clarity. Finally, I review contract law as related to "the unruliness of words," [KGK86] misunderstanding, and interpretation. Note, one might answer two questions when addressing the validity of computer mediated agreements: (1) computer agent competency and (2) the semantic clarity of the agreement. This paper addresses the issue of semantic clarity; agent competency and agency are addressed elsewhere. [GR98]

JEL Classification: K12

Suggested Citation

Reagle, Joseph M., Eskimo Snow and Scottish Rain: Legal Considerations of Schema Design (February 1999). MD Policy Design-19990206, Available at SSRN: or

Joseph M. Reagle (Contact Author)

Berkman Center for Internet & Society ( email )

MIT Lab for Computer Science NE43-350
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States
(617) 258-7621 (Phone)
(617) 253-2613 (Fax)

W3C World Wide Web Consortium ( email )

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