The Gripe Line

SAN MATEO (03/03/2000) - Mid-Atlantic states vie to become the first to enact the controversial UCITAI USED TO THINK that it would get a little easier to explain what's happening with the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) once it got to the state legislatures.

I should have known better.

As we feared, UCITA was passed by the Virginia legislature almost without debate. As one Richmond newspaper reported, Virginia legislators admitted that few had read UCITA and that they were trusting the judgement of the technology commission that studied it. That's the same commission whose study group on UCITA was dominated by representatives of the technology industry and the chairman of the committee who drafted UCITA.

Even so, the efforts of UCITA's opponents in Virginia were not entirely in vain. While the Virginia General Assembly did pass the bill (Virginia's governor has expressed support for UCITA, so it is assumed he will sign it), the voices raised against it at least made the representatives uncomfortable enough to add a provision that the law is not to go into effect until July 1, 2001. In the meantime, the technology commission is to appoint a new advisory committee to consider possible changes that will allay everyone's concerns.

But trying to fix UCITA with a couple of amendments is a bit like trying to keep the Titanic from sinking with a roll of Scotch tape. It also remains to be seen whether the new study group will be just as much a stacked deck as the last one. One good sign is that the legislature did specify that the panel should include representatives from the library associations and the insurance companies, the two groups that have led the way in forming 4CITE (the anti-UCITA coalition to which InfoWorld belongs) and in organizing the fight against UCITA in Virginia and other states. A bad sign is that, although technology vendors will of course be included, the General Assembly did not see fit to specify that a consumer group representative should sit on the committee as well.

Nevertheless, at least this gives Virginia a year to realize it's made a mistake. And since many other states were waiting to see what Virginia would do, many of them will now wait to see what, if any, changes the advisory committee makes to the draft. After all, as a uniform state law, UCITA is supposed to be adopted in the same form by all states, but uniformity may be very difficult to achieve.

Just as it's been from the earliest days of what was then called Article 2B, the UCITA draft continues to be a moving target. What was supposed to be the final draft of the law was released in November by the National Council of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL), the body of state-appointed commissioners who approved it in November. Just before the bill was introduced in Virginia, however, the chairman of the UCITA drafting committee suddenly produced a number of amendments apparently intended to placate the motion picture industry. Before opponents even had a chance to see them, they were included in the bill submitted to the general assembly. One amendment was virtually identical to a provision that the NCCUSL commissioners had deleted when they approved UCITA last July because they believed it was outside UCITA's scope.

Although many states might wait to see if Virginia can find a way to fix UCITA, one state that isn't waiting is Maryland. As in Virginia, the law is being sold to Maryland legislators with the idea that the first state to enact it will attract high-tech companies and jobs to the state, under its vendor-friendly law. There are many fallacies behind this argument, and next week we'll discuss one that particularly pertains to InfoWorld readers.

For now, though, the problem is that Maryland seems to think it's got to outdo its neighbor to grab all those mythical high-tech jobs UCITA is supposed to produce. The software industry lobby is pushing just as hard in Maryland as it did in Virginia, and they have a great deal of influence. Nonetheless, according to 4CITE director Skip Lockwood, Maryland shows signs of being a more level playing field.

"We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were in Virginia at this stage," says Lockwood. "For one thing, two of the legislators of the Science and Technology Subcommittee have actually read UCITA from cover to cover, so they are seeing the inconsistencies for themselves. Unlike Virginia, they aren't just taking the proponents' word that it's too complex for them and they should pass it on faith. UCITA is vampire legislation -- it can't stand up to the light."

While Maryland is a threat, Lockwood believes it's also an opportunity. If other states see Maryland reject or radically alter UCITA, that could take the wind out of UCITA's sails. If you can help 4CITE in the fight, write Lockwood at skip@4cite.org.

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at gripe@infoworld.com.

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