The New York state attorney general on Thursday sued security vendor Network Associates Inc. for violating free speech laws with a clause in its user agreement that prohibits users from criticizing the companys products.
The suit charges that the clauses are illegal and harm the public by preventing discussion of problems and defects in the companys products.
"It is unconscionable that a reputable software developer such as Network Associates would seek to chill and censor public speech and debate about its products," said Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York. "Whether the subject is political debate or debate over which software to buy, we must protect free and open speech from intimidation in order to preserve the publics right to information."
Spitzer is seeking to prevent enforcement of the "restrictive covenants" that he says prevent product reviews and open criticism of Network Associates software. He also contends that because the clause tells consumers that the restrictions are legal under existing "rules and regulations," the company has committed an unlawful deceptive practice.
Officials at the Santa Clara, Calif., company contend that the suit is outdated and that the clause was simply meant to prevent reviewers from publishing articles based on older versions of software.
"Our goal was and is to make sure that customers get the best available information," said Kent Roberts, executive vice president and legal counsel at Network Associates. "Weve seen benchmark tests come out on old versions of our products. The clause is a communications tool in our minds to make sure that were talking to the reviewers and the customers."
The suit drew support from the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, as well as Lawrence Lessig, a prominent expert on Internet law at Stanford Universitys School of Law in Palo Alto, Calif.
"This is an extraordinarily important case for the New York AG to bring," Lessig said. "If software manufacturers dont want their customers criticizing them, they should make good software."