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This ‘robot lawyer’ can take the mystery out of license agreements

DoNotPay, the “robot lawyer” service that helps you contest parking tickets and even sue people, is launching a new tool to help customers understand license agreements. Called “Do Not Sign,” the service is included with DoNotPay’s monthly $3 subscription fee, and it lets users upload, scan, or copy and paste the URLs of any license agreements they’d like to check. The service uses machine learning to highlight clauses it thinks users need to know about, including options to opt out from data collection. It’s available starting today, November 20th, on the web and via DoNotPay’s app on iOS.

Agreeing to lengthy license agreements is an almost weekly occurrence for many people, with modern smart devices forcing you to hit “agree” on every new contract. (It’s so commonplace that The Verge has started tracking the number of these agreements in a new “Agree to Continue” section in each of our reviews.) Do Not Sign isn’t a replacement for a real lawyer, but it’s better than accepting a license agreement sight unseen so you can start using a shiny new gadget, service, or app without delay.

I’ve spent the last couple of days scanning license agreements for most of the major tech companies using Do Not Sign and reading the recommendations that come out. When I fed in Facebook’s terms of service, for example, it alerted me to a total of six issues. These ranged from the mundane (Facebook may change its terms of service at any time) to a reminder that Facebook may store and process your data anywhere in the world, meaning it might be subject to different data protection laws. When scanning license agreements from Google, Do Not Sign told me the company reserves the right to stop providing its services at any time and that its services are used at the users’ sole risk.

In addition to these warnings, Do Not Sign also tries to help customers take advantage of any rights they might be owed by these contracts. That’s what led Joshua Browder, the founder and CEO of DoNotPay, to develop the tool in the first place.

“I got into this gym membership with this US company called Planet Fitness, and I didn’t realize when I was signing up that it’s basically impossible to cancel,” Browder told The Verge in an interview. “I think it just goes to show that even someone like me wouldn’t read the fine print. I don’t think regular people know what they’re agreeing to.” In the case of Planet Fitness, Browder says he eventually found a clause buried in its terms of service that allowed him to cancel the contract if he moved out of the area. In the end, he canceled his membership by telling the gym he’d moved to the UK.

This is what Do Not Sign means by “loopholes.” I found one such example when I fed the system Apple’s terms of service: it informed me that I can request my personal data from the company and ask Apple to delete it. This is a fairly standard feature of modern contracts, thanks to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, but it’s something that the average consumer might not know about. Do Not Sign also highlights when users can opt out of arbitration clauses, a feature in contracts that stops customers from being able to sue a company or join a class action suit against it.

Do Not Sign aims to help users find and opt out of many of these terms, and the service can then help you by sending letters on your behalf. (Browder assured me that before anything happens in the real world, the company performs checks on what’s being done.) Other benefits the company says its tool can identify include complimentary lost-bag insurance that comes with some credit cards or claiming an exception to a pet fee policy for service animals.

Browder and his team have identified around 200 different key terms that Do Not Sign searches for in contracts. They use machine learning to help retrieve these clauses and all their variations. Browder says the system rarely, if ever, produces false positives (finding a term where one doesn’t exist). But there are occasions where the software sometimes misses certain elements, particularly, says Browder, when it comes to identifying how online services can track you across the internet using tools like cookies and tracking pixels.

Felix Steffek, a lecturer in law from the University of Cambridge and a specialist in the use of AI in the legal profession, welcomed the potential for people to get more information about everyday license agreements. Even though most firms don’t offer the opportunity for people to negotiate the contracts they have to sign to access a service, eventually, Steffek hopes, “consumers will shy away from firms with less attractive contracts and prefer firms with more appealing terms.” Provided, of course, there’s a viable competing firm to switch to.

Browder also hopes that Do Not Sign could eventually change the contracts that companies ask customers to agree to. “Sunlight brings transparency, which brings change,” the CEO says. “A lot of these companies are slipping these things in because they know no one actually knows… I think there will be a race to remove all of these exploitative things, if people just knew about them.”

Steffek warned that taking legal advice from an automated system creates inevitable risks, however. Do Not Sign might offer incorrect or incomplete advice, or a user might not fully understand the information being presented to them. (The system told me, for example, that I’m “indemnifying” Uber by using its service without offering any explanation.) But even if the advice isn’t perfect, Steffek said that additional information is better than nothing at all.

Obviously, a service like Do Not Sign is never going to replace paying a lawyer to read over an important contract. (“I’m not saying that it’s going to be arguing in the High Court anytime soon,” Browder jokes.) But when even something as simple as a pair of wireless headphones comes with a lengthy license agreement for you to agree to, even a limited amount of information is better than blindly agreeing to a contract.

Do Not Sign is launching in the US today, and DoNotPay told me the company hopes to bring the service to the UK by the end of December.

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