Soctech brainstorming

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Possible CSE590 Topics

The impact of vendor liability upon the open source development model.

Currently, software vendors are not liable for damages caused by faults in the software they build and sell. The societal cost of defective software (e.g. computer security defects) is currently high (some estimate in excess of $15 billion annually). Moreover, we can predict that the cost will continue to grow, as society becomes increasingly reliant on computers, and computers become increasingly pervasive. The current absence of legal liability allows software vendors to externalize the costs of low-quality software in a manner analagous to environmental polluters.

Hypothesis: Imposing liability on vendors will force vendors to bear the cost of low quality software, thereby providing incentives to improve software quality.

There are many issues under this topic. Generally, what are the costs and benefits of the status quo versus a world with vendor liability? Assumming we want to improve software quality, are there other approaches that would work just as well or better? What are the costs of imposing/enforcing liability? How would this impact the open source movement? Specifically, would this unduly "chill" open source development if developers have to fear that software they write might become subject to legal liability in case it contains "damaging" flaws?

UI Design for a Better Click-through Licenses

Click-through licenses are, for better or worse, a large part of every consumer's life. This research would focus applying user interface design principles to implementing "better" click-through license agreements. As a straw-man definition, a "better" license would be defined as one where the user actually has some chance of understanding the terms of the license they are agreeing to. We can imagine all sorts of improvements that might enhance a consumer's ability to make an intelligent decision about whether they really want to accept the license or not. Trivial examples might include expressing the terms in plain English; more complicated examples might include "walking" the user through the license (term by term) and requesting assent to individual terms. Obviously, there are all sorts of trade-offs to be explored.

Why would this ever be interesting to anyone? Well, consumer groups would certainly be happy if they could point to real research that shows that companies can do a better job of presenting their license terms to consumers. Companies are, of course, seemingly unlikely to want to embrace new ways of presenting licenses -- especially if it will increase the number of e-commerce sales that do not get completed because the buyer gets "cold feet" upon grasping the implications of a purchase. On the other hand, some companies may use "humane licensing" to their competitive advantage, by attracting customers who like shopping somewhere that the company seems willing to actually explain terms to them, rather than bury them in 20 pages of fine print. Finally, if history is any teacher, courts did not disapprove of click wrap licenses (ie. a license that is only reachable by following a link) until they had another technology - click through (ie. a license that is splashed onto the screen with an "I accept" button at the bottom) - came onto the scene. The point is that while courts aren't in the business of saying what sort of technology is required to create an enforceable license, they may bless one technology as sufficient when presented with a qualitatively "worse" technology. (I need to find the case on this, but there is at least one reported opinion where the court compared click wrap to click through and approved of click through...)