More and more, we're seeing companies updating their terms of service to block class-action lawsuits. Last year, the Supreme Court even ruled in AT&T's favor on the issue.
Valve is the latest to do this, following precedent set by EA with their Origin service last fall; there's a first time for everything, I guess. Valve announced the update in a press release yesterday and explained what it means to their users.
In a refreshing change, it seems like Valve is trying to be up-front about it with users rather than slipping it in and hoping gamers don't notice. Even if it's purely for Valve's best interest, at least they respect their audience enough to know something like this would stay hidden for more than a few seconds.
Valve explains that if the customer support process fails, they have a new dispute process in place to resolve problems. Forcing arbitration is normal for these class-action blocking clauses, but Valve is offering something else:
In the arbitration process, Valve will reimburse your costs of the arbitration for claims under a certain amount. Reimbursement by Valve is provided regardless of the arbitrator's decision, provided that the arbitrator does not determine the claim to be frivolous or the costs unreasonable.
That's right; while Valve is blocking class-action lawsuits, they're apparently trying to be civil and customer-focused as they go about it. Valve explains that most class-action claims are more for the benefit of the lawyers involved and that they cause unnecessary expense and delay. Valve feels that paying for individual customers' arbitration (up to $10,000, according to Ars Technica) claims is better for both parties.
As mentioned above, the move on Valve's part isn't exactly unprecedented. Other companies have done it, and the Supreme Court of the United States has upheld such measures. The Supreme Court's ruling on the AT&T case, according to RawStory, was upheld 5-4 by the conservative majority with dissent from the four liberal judges. Justice Antonin Scalia said that individuals are better off in arbitration because they will usually see greater returns on disputes. The consumer advocacy attorney, on the other hand, called the decision a "crushing blow to American consumers and employees." While arbitration does benefit individuals, and while many class-action lawsuits are for the benefit of the lawyer litigating, those same suits can be a powerful tool when used correctly to show a corporation how its customers feel in a very public way. Arbitration is, of course, much more private.
Is this a benefit or problem for Steam customers? It's hard to say. There's clearly a lot of room for debate. Whatever gets Half-Life 3 out sooner, right?