Big Brother wants to control your rights as a software consumer

In July 1999, antiuser computer laws sprouted like tomatoes in the summer sun. The federal government passed the Y2K Act, and the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) sent the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) to the state houses for approval.

On July 20, 1999, President Clinton signed the Y2K Act, which Senator John McCain of Arizona proposed in January 1999. This law forces victims of bad software to wait 90 days before initiating litigation against the software's developer or vendor, caps punitive damages for Y2K-related suits at $250,000, makes filing Y2K-related class action suits far more difficult than filing normal class action suits, and prevents class action suits for less than $10 million. By protecting software developers and vendors against lawsuits stemming from damage that Y2K bugs might cause, the act practically releases these individuals and companies from responsibility for Y2K-related failures.

This situation is so ludicrous it's almost comical: What type of business besides those in the software industry could get away with behaving as if it were completely unaware that the year 2000 would arrive? Under the new law, a business that a Y2K bug causes to shut down in January 2000 must wait until March to even initiate legal action. In the 3-month interim, the vendor whose buggy software caused the problem has plenty of time to skip town or declare bankruptcy. This time frame is also long enough for an affected company to go out of business and therefore not initiate a lawsuit—something software distributors will probably count on. Although small businesses can band together to file class action suits against vendors who develop Y2K-deficient software, enough businesses must cooperate to initiate a $10 million suit. In other words, don't bother the federal courts with your little problems unless you can find a lot of people with your little problems.

Consumer advocate Joan Claybrook characterized the president's support of the Y2K Act as a "sellout of consumers." Claybrook predicts that on January 1, 2000, "Mom and Pop businesses and consumers all over the country will not forgive the White House for stripping their rights to hold reckless corporations accountable."

In July 1999, I wrote a Web-exclusive editorial for Windows NT Magazine ("Buy Now, Regret it Later?" http://www.winntmag.com/articles, InstantDoc ID 7049) about UCITA. If this act becomes law, it will permit shrink-wrap licenses—which let software vendors hold users to contracts that are secret until after the sale. In some cases, these contracts contain ridiculous clauses. For example, some software licenses state, "If a bug in this software causes you harm or damage, you agree not to sue us." In the past, a consumer-product distributor such as a software vendor couldn't enforce such a clause. However, UCITA would make such clauses enforceable. UCITA would also legitimize self-help systems, which act as a kind of cybernetic repo man whereby a vendor with whom you're having a disagreement can simply send an email message to your computer to shut down the vendor's software.

If UCITA passes, it will be state rather than federal legislation. The 50 US states use NCCUSL to maintain uniformity in their legislation. NCCUSL drafts a model law and passes it to the state houses for approval. Although states aren't required to pass NCCUSL proposals, many do so with very little scrutiny. At its annual meeting in Denver on July 29, 1999, NCCUSL approved UCITA for proposal to the states. None of the 50 states had passed UCITA at press time, so you still have time to contact your governor and state legislators to express your opposition to the law.

Weed Out Bad Laws
Although July 1999 might have been a good month for tomatoes, it was a bad month for software consumers. You can't do much about the Y2K Act except wait for its fallout, but you can prevent UCITA from becoming law. For suggestions about fighting UCITA, go to the Bad Software Web site (http://www.badsoftware.com).