France builds tool to track changes in terms of service

By Yun Xuan Poon

Henri Verdier, Ambassador for Digital Affairs, shares more on the open source and collaborative Open Terms Archive.

Digital services are governed by pages and pages of terms and clauses, but users don’t always know what they’re agreeing to, or what rights they have when using those services.

France plans to change that with a new tool called the Open Terms Archive. It is meant to “provide transparency” to help citizens, authorities and regulators understand tech’s terms of service, says French Ambassador for Digital Affairs Henri Verdier.

He shares how the tool will help France move towards a more open and transparent internet.

What is the Open Terms Archive?

The Open Terms Archive is a free and collaborative tool that records changes to a terms of service document in real time - similar to how Google Docs tracks changes. It displays specific changes in the document and provides a history of all its different versions.

“Anyone can run their own private instance and track changes on their own,” says Verdier. Users can also subscribe to email notifications that will tell them when a new version is recorded.

The tool is open source, so anyone can upload documents onto the site. These documents are classified according to type, including “terms and conditions”, “privacy policy”, “developer agreement”. The tool periodically updates the documents by fetching a web location and selecting content within the web page to remove noise, including ads, navigation menu, and login fields, he explains.

Why is it important?

The Open Terms Archive provides “a first toolbox to empower the user trapped in an asymmetric relation with digital service providers”, shares Verdier. Each user can identify precisely what they have agreed to, the data they have shared, and the rights given to the service provider.

France plans to “[restore] a balance that can only lean on transparency and self-decision. We wanted to give a tool to every user, advocate, researcher, journalist or regulator who wishes to verify the [terms of service] of the major tech companies by itself,” he says.

The tool will also help authorities verify if tech companies’ terms are in line with national and international law. This can help lawmakers and regulators better understand tech companies’ compliance efforts and “fairly frame their activities,” Verdier explains.

Regulators can hold these platforms accountable as well, to fully understand how digital service providers implement their commitments or legal requirements. Legal communities and researchers can easily track and understand how digital platforms’ terms of service have changed over time.

Open and collaborative

The tool currently monitors 367 documents and 174 service providers, and France expects more to come. These documents are useful for developing new services that will help regulate tech companies.

For instance, the Scripta Manent allows users to measure all changes to a document between any two dates for the 367 documents. This simple tool is the “first example of an application built on this knowledge-sharing”, notes Verdier.

France is working on creating new functions within the tool, such as tracking images and documents in PDF formats. The Ambassador’s technical team and its international partners are considering a translation of the tool.

France is also looking to collaborate with other countries to advance the tool. Germany and the Netherlands have already expressed interest, Verdier tells GovInsider.

“For the first time, French diplomacy created digital solutions to empower the users and set the dialogue with digital service providers on a technical basis,” says Verdier.

France plans to empower citizens, businesses and regulators so they can have more control over their relationships and rights with tech companies. The Open Terms Archive is set to bring the country closer to this vision.