The time bombs of UCITA

Anytime 300 lawyers agree something is a good idea, you’d better bar the door and hide the silver. But as our front-page story reports, that’s exactly what has happened.

The 300-or-so attorneys of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws have labored mightily and given birth to UCITA, the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act. This “model legislation” would bring order and regularity, those lawyers say, to the wild frontier of software and internet-access licensing.

Although many maverick citizens of cyberspace might be skeptical, uniformity probably is preferable to chaos. Historically, though, promises of order in exchange for autonomy have proven dangerously seductive. They’ve been the lure that despots dangle just before they snatch your liberty. All Mussolini wanted from the Italians, after all, was just a little more control so he could hasten those tardy trains.

All right. All right. Given even the worst interpretation, UCITA is a far cry from fascism. But what summons up the distant echo of those jackboots—at least in my mind—is UCITA’s so-called “self-help” provisions. These might better be called “help yourself” provisions. They would give software publishers and internet-access providers the right to insinuate their agents into your computers.

In the case of a conflict between you and a software publisher, the publisher, under UCITA, would have the right to exercise access to your computer and disable the disputed programs. Publishers would get to install “back doors” and “time bombs” that would reside in the software on your computers, and the publishers would be able to activate these hidden lodgers to remedy alleged licensing violations.

I don’t know about you, but “back doors” and “time bombs” aren’t something I care to have poised inside my laptop or coiled within my server.

UCITA advocates, you may be sure, point to several specific safeguards in the model legislation. Under the proposed law, publishers would be expected to meet those requirements before crippling your computers.

UCITA backers assure us the publishers would never abuse these electronic prerogatives. But in an imperfect world, I don’t much like relying on assurances. The FBI assured Janet Reno about what it did or didn’t do at Waco, Texas. My service agreement with a computer maker assures me I’ll get my machine back in a maximum of four days if it goes in for repair. At one month and counting, I’m beginning to wonder what those assurances were worth.

The “self-help” provisions, say UCITA fans, merely set up a situation akin to laws that allow banks to repossess automobiles from deadbeats. Upon reflection, though, I wonder about that analogy, too.

I certainly hope our car-loan laws don’t give dealers the right to break into my garage if they think I’ve violated my auto lease. I’m pretty sure our laws don’t allow the loan company to install a repo man inside my trunk who can jump out if I miss a payment and slash my tires.

And then there’s the consenting-adult argument. UCITA wouldn’t give software publishers any rights you haven’t agreed to. Maybe so.

Trouble is, clicking the “I agree” box is a little different than signing your name 56 times in triplicate at a lawyer’s office during a property settlement. Both acts might have the same force under law. And for the 300 lawyers who cooked up UCITA, the two acts might be legally identical. But just between you and me, I confess I’ve sometimes clicked “I agree” without even reading the legalese, much less consulting legal counsel.

With that lackadaisical approach, the UCITA lawyers probably would tell me, I’ll get just what I deserve. Well, I say we don’t deserve to be put in that position. And until they eliminate the “help yourself” provisions of this model legislation, I say we don’t deserve UCITA, either.

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