Back in August 2014, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission – Australia’s consumer protection watchdog – announced that it would be taking Valve to court over its failure to abide by Australian Consumer law in its business practices. On March 29th 2016, the ACCC announced that the Australian Federal Court had ruled in their favour in the lawsuit, stating that certain sections of Valve’s ‘Steam subscriber agreement’ and ‘Steam refund policy’ we’re in violation of Australian Consumer Law, and that by making their goods available to Australians, they were conducting business on Australian soil, and are thus bound by our laws. There are to be further hearings in April to decide on what reparations and changes Steam has to make if they wish to continue selling in Australia, but what is this going to mean for the average user?
Disclaimer: pending the decisions of the AFC at the relief hearing, the following is speculation based on my admittedly basic grasp of the ACL. I am not a lawyer, just a pundit.
The major development to come out of the ACCC’s case is the new definition of digitally supplied software under the ACL. With the AFC ruling that the products Valve sell through Steam fall under the ACL’s definition of ‘goods’ – and that Valve is indeed operating under Australian law when selling to the estimated 2.2 Million Australian users – there are now a number of laws that Valve are required to abide by concerning the quality of their products.
The major finding in the case was that Valve was not providing the correct provisions for refunds under the ACL. Valve have rectified this problem since the suit began, and the policy does seem to fall in line with the ACL’s guidelines on the matter – and moves beyond them in some cases, namely the refund ‘for any reason’ line. Time will tell whether the particular issues with the system (the 2 hour time limit in particular) will hold up under the ACL, and I can easily imagine Valve being taken to court over their downright terrible customer service system (particularly when it comes to trying to obtain refunds), but for the most part, the issue of refunds seems to be fixed for the moment.
The other issue raised within the lawsuit is the fact that Valve provides no warranty on the products they sell. Up till now, Valve seems to have styled themselves as a Marketplace of sorts – they provide the storefront and take a cut of the income, but the major onus for providing quality products is on the individual developers and publishers. This is now set to change, as the AFC ruling states that Valve is indeed selling goods under the ACL (rather than services as they claimed), and that the ACL does indeed apply to their continued operation on Australian soil. This means that Valve is expected to abide by certain consumer guarantees concerning the quality of goods, including that they must meet the description provided, do everything that the purchaser expects them to do. These guarantees mean that Valve is now responsible under Australian law for the quality of good they sell to Australian customers. If the ACCC takes a hard line stance on pushing for this, hopefully it won’t become a crapshoot whether or not an older game will work on modern windows; and broken, half-finished ‘games’ like Citadels will no longer be made available for sale on Steam.
Perhaps most problematically for the Steam Subscriber Agreement, the consumer guarantees required by the ACL include the requirement for products to come with full title and ownership to the purchaser, as well as undisturbed possession (that is, the purchaser cannot have them removed or be prevented from their use). Currently, section 2 of the SSA states that software purchased through Steam is licenced, and confers no ownership or title to the services you use. Given the change in status of Steam’s products in Australia, and that no other contract can supercede the basic consumer rights as outlined in the ACL, it could spell trouble for Valve if they continue to push their current stance in Australia. They could potentially get around this by moving to an actual subscription model, but something tells me that Valve aren’t willing to risk that kind of backlash. In any event, I (and 2.2 Million other Australians) at least have a flimsy protection against the doomsday ‘what if Valve shuts down their servers’ prediction.
Finally, this ruling might finally allow Australian PC gamers the opportunity to purchase games in a localised version of the Steam Store. There were rumours that Valve was planning to introduce a localised storefront for Australia before the lawsuit happened, and the prevailing theory as to why this stalled seems to be a tactic to bolster Valve’s defense in the lawsuit. Hopefully, now that it has been made clear in a court of law that Valve does indeed conduct business on Australian soil, they might finally give Australians a fairer storefront in a currency they don’t have to convert.
This ruling doesn’t just have an impact on Valve and Steam, the precedent it sets has ramifications for any company that sells digital software in Australia. I’m expecting that, if the ACCC keeps taking a hardline stance on digital storefronts like Steam, other companies like GoG.com, Ubisoft, EA, Microsoft, Sony, and even non-gaming software sellers Adobe will also have to ensure that they meet the ACL in their own storefronts, and with their own products. It sounds hopeful – there are still a lot of issues that could arise with any possible solution – but this is the first time I’ve felt hopeful about the state of PC gaming in Australia in years.