Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Using ICANN's UDRP Harvard Law School > Berkman Center > Open Education > E-Commerce: An Introduction



E-Commerce: An Introduction

Two years ago, the sum total of knowledge about e-commerce could be contained in one bucket of bits. Two years from now, one might float on an ocean of digital signature regulation alone. Almost every area of substantive law has been touched by an "e-issue" and it is all a cyber-attorney can do to keep his or her head above water.

The broadest definition of e-commerce is "the conduct of transactions by electronic means." In the interest of water safety, this series will sail in a smaller pond. We will focus specifically on purchases of goods and services from online stores on the Web. Because this is an introductory course with a limited schedule, we will focus our study around the needs of a fictional e-enterprise,, which has no bricks-and-mortar counterpart, deals only in electronic information, and does not engage in sales of physical goods. (website)

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the Internet is its fluid and ephemeral character. Web pages disappear in the blink of an electronic eyelash. Users pass through cyberspace at speeds formerly restricted to comic book Superheroes. Identity is largely self-selected. Rights are speculative, remedies ethereal. The technology is changing daily, creating a continuous stream of new causes of action. The law comes striding slowly, ponderously through the eddy, leaving footfalls in the mud that are sometimes deep enough to cause diversion in the flow, but are more often irrelevant to the traffic that continues swimming along the surface.

Nonetheless, legislative beavers and social engineers have lost their fear of the water and have begun busily constructing their dams and bridges. In unprecedented fashion, they are reaching across the waters to like-minded enthusiasts on the other side, seeking a uniformity of design that will result in stronger spans (website) (Canada). One wonders how much longer the stream will flow with full force and abandon.

This series will look primarily at those steps in the e-commerce venture that are unique to the online experience itself such as the terms of hosting and website development agreements, common advertising arrangements, digital signatures, encryption technology, consumer privacy, and the emerging field of online dispute resolution. It is designed primarily for use by practicing attorneys who are new to e-commerce. Our time is unfortunately too limited to cover many important e-commerce developments. For example, the first thing a startup might do is set up its corporate structure, establish ownership shares, line up a management team, hunt for seed or paid-in capital, rent an office, and hire staff. This type of information is not covered in our program nor are industry-specific developments such as with online securities trading (website)(Bell).

Begin with the Outline link to read the text materials. You may prefer to listen to them in their audiotaped equivalents. Visit the homepage of our mythical enterprise, There are frequent links to more detailed background papers on many topics which are optional reading. The Library is a useful page of reference links. The most lively part of the program is the Discussions forum where one may raise questions about the content and communicate with instructors and other participants. These exchanges have often proved one of the most effective ways to absorb knowledge about our topic. Only the Outline text (or its equivalent audiotape) is required reading for CLE credit.

At this stage of Internet development, it is often the case that the information presented today is obsolete by tomorrow. This lecture is only a glimpse of today’s e-commerce legal issues. The flow of information continues to change as new issues driven by new technology come to the surface. We hope that this series will help the practitioner steer around some of the larger shoals in the stream of e-commerce. Please jump in now--the water is only chilly at first.

Diane Cabell
30 April 2001


Canada - United Kingdom Joint Statement on Global Electronic Commerce and E-Government, available at <>.

Cyber/SecuritiesLaw, Blake Bell, ed., available at <>.



Please send all inquiries to: Diane Cabell

Home | Introduction | Setting Up | Transactions | Privacy | Disputes | Reference | Search

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Design by: Robert Ditzion and Grethe Thilly