This Chrome Extension Helps You Find Traps In Terms and Conditions

Called TrueColours, it reveals the most important parts of app-related legalese

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jun 15, 2016 at 12:21 PM ET

A new browser plug-in called TrueColours promises to make short work of the one of the most ignored aspects of consumer participation in the internet: terms and conditions agreements.

Developed for a marketing campaign by the German pen company Stabilo, TrueColours, recently debuted in Germany, will highlight those critical passages with a stoplight color-coded system of notification that puts noteworthy sections in green, questionable ones in yellow, and critical ones in red. But it also relies on a crowdsourcing, letting users suggest and share, passages they think are important.

Most consumers agree to the terms because they assume that it’s all legal jargon anyway, with fingers crossed that it isn’t anything likely to affect them. Plus, if you don’t agree, you can’t use the service.

But TrueColours is encouraging users to “keep your privacy private” with this extension, though awareness about what we’re agreeing to when we click accept is only half the battle. As TrueColours explains in a video, “the two biggest lies on the internet are: Firstly, I’ve read the terms and conditions. And secondly: I agree to them.”

And who could blame consumers for glossing over the fine print? iTunes terms and conditions agreement currently runs 60 pages long. In May of this year, the Norwegian Consumer Council demonstrated the absurd length of these agreements by reading aloud 33 of the country’s most popular apps’ user agreements, including Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Netflix. It took 32 hours.

Consumers should realize that the language of the terms and conditions agreements are about protecting the company offering the services, not the user. With iTunes, for instance, those pages are spelling out that you don’t really own the movie you just downloaded on iTunes, that they can access your private data to make recommendations to you, or that they don’t have to replace lost purchases.

But by making you scroll through to hit click, companies are actually making sure that what you’re agreeing to is legally enforceable. Clicking “agree” is the same thing as your electronic signature online thanks to a federal law passed in 2000 called the Electronic Signatures in Global and International Commerce Act (ESGICA). A recent case where a company attempted to add additional terms and conditions via email for a subscription discount service, which didn’t require the user to express consent to those additional terms in any way, didn’t hold up in court.

So while it’s worth noting that TrueColours could finally help us understand what we’re agreeing to, what’s less clear is whether anyone will opt out even once they know. In the meantime, you can get the Chrome extension directly from TrueColours, the Chrome store, and the app, currently only in German, at the Apple Store—so long as you’ve agreed to their terms and conditions, too.