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Can You Criticize Your Computer Software?

Can You Criticize Your Computer Software?

Who’s in charge of what you do or say with your computer equipment? You, or the companies who sell it to you? While none of us are completely in control of our destiny — even the most unfettered work under the sway of someone else in one way or another — one of the reasons for the success of the personal computer revolution is how PCs empower individuals.
More and more, however, computer companies are trying to wrest that control away from you.
Before delving into this, here’s an idea about how we all can empower ourselves: sharing secrets. What computing tips or littleknown computer programs or Web sites do you find indispensable and feel that others might benefit from? E-mail them to me, and I’ll construct a future column around the best of them.
The latest controversy surrounding control issues involves software end-user license agreements, or EULAs. When you buy a software program, you typically don’t actually own it. You’re just buying a license to use it.
How you use the program is governed by the wording of the EULA, which usually is printed on the envelope that holds the program’s disc and also appears on screen when you install the program.
Open and install the software, and you must agree to abide by its license provisions, including whether you can copy the program onto more than one computer. Many EULAs use arcane legalese to try to absolve the software company of all responsibility if the program doesn’t work as advertised or even work at all.
The most controversial software license issue involves free speech. Did you know that with some software, you’re not allowed to criticize it without first asking the software company’s permission?
Imagine not being able to read a movie review from your favorite reviewer because the movie studio didn’t let the reviewer publish his not-so-favorable opinions. Imagine the same happening with CDs, books, restaurants and so on.
You might think this is much ado about something little, just overzealous lawyers trying to cover themselves with no prospect of companies actually exercising the rights they force you to sign over to them.
After all, these no-critique provisions fly in the face some of our society’s most cherished ideals — about a free and open marketplace of ideas — not to mention the spirit of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
What’s more, some legal experts feel these agreements aren’t or shouldn’t be legally binding because by the time you’ve determined what you need to agree to — that is after you’ve bought the software — it’s too late to back out of the agreement.
Yet amazingly, some software companies do use EULA’s to try to muzzle people. And even more amazingly, sometimes they succeed.
A couple of years ago the database software maker Oracle demanded that PC Magazine, one of the country’s top computer magazines, refrain from publishing the results of its testing, citing its EULA that prohibits this without the company’s written permission. PC Magazine consented.
Microsoft, not surprisingly, has made news with its draconian EULAs. Its Web editing program FrontPage, for example, prohibits you from using its Web components to create Web sites critical of Microsoft or any of its products or services.
Most recently, Network Associates, maker of the popular McAfee antivirus software and other products, was sued by the state of New York after it demanded that Network World magazine retract an unfavorable review about its firewall product. Network Associates cited its EULA prohibiting product reviews without its permission.
The magazine held its ground. But the state of New York, with the backing of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, alleges that the company is trying to restrict free speech.
“Consumers and the media have the right under the First Amendment to discuss the flaws of products,” says Brad Maione, spokesman for the New York State Attorney General’s office.
Network Associates, not very credibly, contends that it just wants to make sure that people who write about its software have the latest version. But as a result of the suit, the company is changing the language in its EULAs, says Kent Roberts, the company’s general counsel.
The company, however, still has egg on its face, which leads to the lesson to be learned.
If any company, in a misguided, Orwellian attempt to control all aspects of its environment, tries or appears to try to subjugate consumers or those who speak for them, there will be a backlash.
Just as voters should rule a democracy, consumers should rule a market economy. 

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or <>.

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