BROOKE GLADSTONE: The internet may be sparking a wide variety of conflicts, but it also has the power to resolve them. Right now there are about 40 web sites devoted to brokering disputes, and now the technology is catching the attention of law schools. This month law students from about 40 schools and 15 countries began what in legalese is called an "online international alternative dispute resolution moot court." Susan Kaplan offers this "translation."
SUSAN KAPLAN: Imagine for a minute that you own a corporation in Singapore that sells, let's say, widgets to a company in the United States, and the widgets are made in Indonesia - but there's a problem. Some recently-shipped widgets are defective. Peter Manzo was a third year law student at Texas Wesleyan Law School when he and his teammate dealt with this exercise in last year's competition.
PETER MANZO:We were representing the client from Singapore who sold the product to the corporation in the United States. Of course we did not want to litigate. We did not want to pay damages. But we wanted to continue to do business with this company.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Manzo's goal was to negotiate a settlement. He says mediation and arbitration are less adversarial than the courts when it comes to dealing with parties from different jurisdictions, and in this case, different countries. His goal was to fashion an agreement designed to keep both sides happy, but unlike most legal wrangling, this process took place completely on line. So Manzo says his team began by creating a set of rules.
PETER MANZO:Simple things like: Please do not write more than one question at a time. Allow us time to respond to your first question before you send another. Also, if you do not respond within five minutes, please tell us that you are thinking over what we have written or that you need to leave or whatever. Just trying to develop an e-etiquette.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Manzo says this "e-etiquette" was crucial, because common but tricky problems could derail a transaction in the virtual legal environment. There's that moment, he says, when you push the send button and wonder if that's really what you wanted to say. In the end, Manzo's team won the gold medal. Texas Wesleyan law professor Ben Davis who helped organize the event says he was surprised by how many schools from all over the world expressed interest in fielding a team.
BEN DAVIS:If you can imagine sort of a set of rooms on, on a wall sort of like-- in tic tac toe, if you click on one box and in there you would see students from Australia and-- negotiating with students from France and in the next room click over another box and you'd have students from Canada negotiating with students from New Zealand.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Davis, who spent a decade working for the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris says trying to solve legal problems suits the internet because transactions naturally cross geographic boundaries. Ethan Katsch, the director of the Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution at the University of Massachusetts says mediation and arbitration are practical, on-line alternatives, to the court system.
ETHAN KATSCH:If people are separated by great distances, state-based legal systems don't really work very well. They're just not appropriate, because it's in general faster, cheaper and--you don't have to worry about states and police forces and coercing people to appear in particular places, as we knew that couldn't happen. But the other intriguing thing is, we did think that you could build what we call "civic institutions" on line.
SUSAN KAPLAN: But, as the cliche goes, you can build it but will they come? Katsch, who's considered a pioneer in on-line dispute resolution says it will take time and money to create what he calls a kind of internet conflict resolution infrastructure. He says Square Trade, an on line mediation company that works with eBay has already handled some 300,000 disputes and is a good example of where the use of the technology is heading. Meanwhile this year's competition is attracting about four times as many schools as last year, including a law school from Amman, Jordan and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Professor Ben Davis from Texas Wesleyan says the on line moot court gives law students a chance to be projected into being international lawyers.
BEN DAVIS:They were out competing with students from around the world. They didn't have to go through local, regional or national competitions to get there. They didn't have to go anywhere. And they had this opportunity to see - to try - try out their chops! - to see how they - how they did at it.
SUSAN KAPLAN: And Peter Manzo who was on last year's winning team and who just passed the bar in Texas says he's still enjoying the victory.
PETER MANZO: It was mind-boggling to me to win and then have someone say well you're the international champion, and I'm like well, I never left the computer lab at Texas Wesleyan University's School of Law's building!
SUSAN KAPLAN: On line mediation experts agree: where humans meet to barter, exchange information or to communicate in any way, there are bound to be conflicts. And they believe the internet can offer new options for resolving them. For On the Media, I'm Susan Kaplan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, TV in classrooms -- threat or menace? And a holiday gift for media junkies. This is On the Media from NPR.