The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has announced that it is taking legal action against Valve, claiming that they have made false and misleading representations of consumer guarantees to Australian Steam customers.

It comes from conflicts between Steam’s policies regarding refunds and the requirements stipulated under the Australian Consumer Law. The ACC contend that by operating in Australia and not amending their policies to fall in line with Australian law, they have presented false and misleading representations that:

  • Consumers were not entitled to a refund for any games sold by Valve via Steam in any circumstances;
  • Valve had excluded, restricted or modified statutory guarantees and/or warranties that goods would be of acceptable quality;
  • Valve was not under any obligation to repair, replace or provide a refund for a game where the consumer had not contacted and attempted to resolve the problem with the computer game developer, and
  • the statutory consumer guarantees did not apply to games sold by Valve.

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims released the following statement regarding the lawsuit:

“The Australian Consumer Law applies to any business providing goods or services within Australia. Valve may be an American based company with no physical presence in Australia, but it is carrying on business in Australia by selling to Australian consumers, who are protected by the Australian Consumer Law… It is a breach of the Australian Consumer Law for businesses to state that they do not give refunds under any circumstances, including for gifts and during sales. Under the Australian Consumer Law, consumers can insist on a refund or replacement at their option if a product has a major fault.”

The ACCC are demanding from Valve declarations (An admission of guilt), adverse publicity orders (A public mea culpa), financial penalties, costs and a compliance program order (a plan to avoid similar infractions in the future). Valve have issued a statement to Kotaku Australia saying that they plan to co-operate fully.

This is a significant turn of events for the growing global digital marketplace towards which gaming is inexorably moving. Now everyone seems to be able to sell games to the whole world directly, with individual countries’ consumer laws long considered a perennially-hovering question mark. The ACCC’s actions are setting a precedent of local consumer bodies holding foreign online games retailers to local laws. Indeed, Valve’s own refund policy states the following:

As with most software products, unless required by local law, we do not offer refunds or exchanges on games, DLC or in-game items purchased on our website or through the Steam client.

It appear, however, that the ACCC lawsuit is a result of Australian consumers having difficulties getting Valve to live up to the above stipulation. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start getting held to this more often, which one hopes will make other online retailers more vigilant as well.

A pile of dino poop by any other name...

A pile of dino poop by any other name…

What’s also interesting about it is the ACCC’s accusation that Valve had not provided satisfactory guarantees that goods would be of acceptable quality. Since announcing that they could not guarantee that Early Access games will be finished as advertised, many have questioned the reliability of how games are promoted on Steam. It opens the door for a range of unsavoury practices – the underdeveloped Early Access projects talked about  in the article above, for example, or the downright awful Orion Dino Beatdown, which has just been rebranded Orion Dino Horde on Steam in an attempt to conceal the game’s 35% Metacritic score.

However, the Australian Consumer Law requires businesses to provide consumers reasonable guarantees as to a product’s quality. Considering that this is something that arguably impacts every Australian Steam user and not just those that have tried to get refunds, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this become a major aspect of the lawsuit. It wouldn’t surprise me if it encourages gamers in other countries outside the US to check up their countries’ consumer laws as well.

This is going to be interesting…