Consumer Protection and SoftwareBy Adrian Lane
CNET is reporting that last week the European Commission is proposing consumer protection laws be applied to software. Mentioning specifically anti-virus and video game software, commissioners Viviane Reding and Meglena Kuneva have proposed that EU consumer protections for physical products be extended to software in an effort to protect customers and implying that consumers would use more and buy more if the software was better.
“extending the principles of consumer protection rules to cover licensing agreements of products like software downloaded for virus protection, games, or other licensed content,” according to the commissioners’ agenda. “Licensing should guarantee consumers the same basic rights as when they purchase a good: the right to get a product that works with fair commercial conditions.”
In reality I am guessing some politician took notice that few in the voting public are for crappy software. Or perhaps they took notice that anti-virus software does not really stop malware, spyware, phishing and viruses as advertised? Or perhaps they still harbor resentment for “ET: The Game”? Who knows.
I had to laugh at Business Software Alliance Director Francisco Mingorance’s comment that “Digital Content is not a tangible good and should not be subject to the same liability as toasters.” He’s right. If your toaster is mis-wired it could kill you. Or if you used it in the bathtub for that matter. If people are not happy with a $45.00 piece of software, and no one died from its use, do you think anyone is going to prosecute? Sure, Alvin & the Chipmunks really sucked; caveat emptor!
Even if you should find a zealous prosecutor, if something should go wrong with the software, who will get the blame? The vendor for producing the code? The customer for they way they deployed, configured, and modified it? How would this work on an application stack or in one of the cloud models? Was the software fully functional to the point in time specification, but the surrounding environment changes created a vulnerable condition? If anti-virus stops one virus but not another, should it be deemed defective? There is not enough time, money or interest to address these questions, so the legislative effort is meaningless.
I appreciate the EC’s frustration and admire them for wanting to do something about software quality and ‘efficacy’, but the proposal is not viable. Granted there are the few software developers who look upon their craft to build the best the best possible software, but most companies will continue to sell us the crappiest product that we will still buy. The only people who will benefit are the lawyers who will be needed to protect their clients from liability; you think EULAs are bad now, you have seen nothing yet! Do not be surprised if you see the software quality bandwagon rumble through Washington D.C. as well, but it will not make security software better because you cannot effectively legislate software quality. Meaningful change will come when customers vote with their dollars.