Let us talk about E-Contracts (I): Electronic agents and conclusion of online contracts

The advancements in the internet as means of facilitating contract formation does not, at first read, present a situation different from that applicable to a facsimile or telex. An e-contract can be created either via the exchange of e-mails or by the completion of a document as a website which is submitted to another party electronically. While it is true that to the great extent that e-contracts are modernised methods of contract formation but they don’t require any particular changes to the law. Still, there are some particular issues arising from their electronic form. This post will discuss the international instruments that provide legal recognition to e-contracts and very advanced facets of it.

A contract is concluded if the parties intend to be legally bound, and they reach a sufficient agreement. Conclusion of contract with offer and acceptance. A contract can be concluded by the acceptance of an offer.

There are various ways to conclude e-contracts. The significant and interesting ones are as follows:

Forming contracts via electronic communications (such as e-mails)

The simplest e-contract is concluded by the exchange of text documents via electronic communications, such as e-mail. Offers and acceptances can be exchanged totally by e-mails, or can be combined with paper documents, faxes, telephonic discussions, etc.

Acceptance of orders placed on online marketplaces

The vendor/ supplier can offer goods or services (such as air tickets, software, etc.) through his website. The vendee, in such cases, places an order by completing and transmitting the order form provided on the website. The merchandise may be physically delivered later (e.g., in case of outfits, CDS, books, etc) or be immediately delivered electronically (e.g., in case of e-tickets, software, etc).

Online agreements

In some cases, users are required to accept an online agreement in order to be able to avail the services e.g. clicking on ‘I agree’ while installing software or clicking on ‘I agree’ while signing up for an e-mail account.

The electronic data interchange (EDI)

It is the inter-process of communication of business information in a standardised electronic form. That is, they are contracts used in trade transactions which enable the transfer of data from one computer to another in such a way that each transaction in the trading cycle (for example, commencing from the receipt of an order from an overseas buyer, through the preparation and lodgment of export and other official documents, leading eventually to the shipment of the goods) can be processed with virtually no paperwork. In this case, the data is formatted by means of standard protocols, so that it can be implemented directly by the receiving computer. EDI is, frequently, used to transmit standard purchase orders, acceptances, invoices, and other records, and thus, reduces paperwork and the potential for human errors. In this type of contracts, in contrast to the above methods, there is an exchange of information and completion of contracts between two computers and not an individual and a computer.

Through electronic agents/ bots

It is possible for computer users to instruct the computer to carry out transactions robotically. For instance, in today’s supermarket, the computer updates its inventory as items are scanned for sale. When the stock of an item falls to a predetermined level, the computer is programmed, without human involvement, to contact the computer of the supplier and place an order for replacement stock. The supplier’s computer, exclusive of human intervention, accepts the order and the next morning automatically prints out worksheets and delivery sheets for the supply and transport staff.

These electronic agents are programmed by and with the authority of the purchaser and supplier. The legal status of electronic agents has not been clarified by the courts, but the most common view is that like any other piece of equipment under the control of the owner, the owner accepts responsibility. A computer is a tool programmed by or with a person’s authority to put into operation their intention to make or accept contractual offers.

According to Russell and Norving, ‘An agent is anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through effectors. A human agent has eyes, ears, and other organs for sensors, and hands, legs, mouth, and other body parts for effectors. A robotic agent substitutes cameras and infrared range finders for the sensors and various motors for the effectors. A software agent has encoded bit strings as its percepts and actions.’

Such electronic agents and devices have features which facilitate humans in their normal interaction and functions, such as, intelligence, autonomy and pro-activeness. The idea of having intelligent systems—to assist human beings with routine tasks, to shift through an enormous amount of information available to a user and select only that which is relevant—is not novel and a lot of work and results have already been achieved in the field of artificial intelligence (‘AI’).

Legal recognition of electronic agents

The E-COMMERCE DIRECTIVE 2000/31/EC of The European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 does not take in hand the issue of automated transaction made through electronic agents. The explanatory notes of the proposal of the Ecommerce Directive state that the Member States should refrain from preventing the use of certain electronic systems such as intelligent electronic agents for making a contract. But, the final version makes no reference to electronic agents in the main text or in the recital. The deletion of the proposed text furnishes a sign of the EU’s failure to respond to the tremendous growth of e-commerce. It is also not in consonance with the preamble to the Directive, which states that the purpose of the Directive is to stimulate economic growth, competitiveness and investment by removing many legal obstacles to the internal market in online provision of electronic commerce services. However, the exclusion of the provision giving legal recognition to electronic agents is a step backwards and a failure to recognise the role of electronic agents in fostering the development of e-commerce such as lower transaction costs, facilitate technology and adherence to international conventions.

The United Nations Convention on the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts 2005 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘UNCUECIC’) contains provisions dealing with issues such as determining a party’s location in an electronic environment; the time and place of dispatch and receipt of electronic communications and the use of automated message systems for contract formation. Art.12 of the UNCUECIC, which deals with the use of automated message systems for contract formation, states, ‘A contract formed by the interaction of an automated message system and a natural person, or by the interaction of automated message systems, shall not be denied validity or enforceability on the sole ground that no natural person reviewed or intervened in each of the individual actions carried out by the automated message systems or the resulting contract.’ The objective behind the adoption of the uniform rules was to remove obstacles to the use of electronic communications in international contracts, including obstacles that might result from the operation of existing international trade law instruments, and to enhance legal certainty and commercial predictability for international contracts and help States gain access to modern trade routes.

In the USA, the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, 1999 (UETA) expressly recognises that an electronic agent may operate autonomously, and contemplates contracts formed through the interaction of electronic agents and those formed by the interaction of electronic agents and individuals.

Section 14 of the UETA reads as follows:

In an automated transaction, the following rules apply:

(1) A contract may be formed by the interaction of electronic agents of the parties, even if no individual was aware of or reviewed the electronic agents’ actions or the resulting terms and agreements.

(2) A contract may be formed by the interaction of an electronic agent and an individual, acting on the individual’s own behalf or for another person, including by an interaction in which the individual performs actions that the individual is free to refuse to perform and which the individual knows or has reason to know will cause the electronic agent to complete the transaction or performance.

(3) The terms of the contract are determined by the substantive law applicable to it.

Section 14 of the UETA, which is based upon Article 11 of the UNICTRAL Model Law on Electronic Commerce, deals with ‘automated transaction’. This Section states that contracts can be formed by machines functioning as ‘electronic agents’ for parties to a transaction. It wipes out any claim that lack of human intent, at the time of contract formation, prevents contract formation. When machines are involved, the requirement of intention flows from the programming and use of the machine. It is quite evident that the main purpose of this provision of the UETA is to remove barriers to electronic transactions while leaving the substantive law, e.g., law of mistake, law of contract formation, unaffected to the greatest extent possible. Also, the Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA) also has provisions supporting the ability of electronic agents to make binding contracts.

Recommended Readings

  • Wooldridge & Jennings, ‘Intelligent Agents: Theory and Practice’, Knowledge Engineering Review, (June 1995) Vol. 10 No. 2, Cambridge University Press (1995).
  • Alan Davidson, The Law of Electronic Commerce, Cambridge University Press, (2009).
  • R K Singh, Law Relating To Electronic Contracts (2017)