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On Consent

When talking about #consent, much of the conversation revolves around sexual consent, even I have written about sexual consent before, and have talked about it often as someone who helped with Title IX compliance at the college level. We are used to seeing consent in medical settings, sexual settings, and in relation to privacy, but consent is part of our everyday lives, more than people think.

To put it simply, consent is giving permission to someone, for something. This is very vague, but it is a good starting point for building understanding. It also shows how much consent can be applied to: is the “something” a hug, sex, a meal together, giving your data to someone or some company, a conversation with a stranger, or something else? Different people have tried to categorize different types of consent (i.e. express/explicit consent, implied consent, informed consent, or even “opt-out” consent [which I find to be the opposite of consent]) but because consent is contextual, as the situation changes consent should be revisited as needed.

As I covered in my previous post about sexual consent:

Consent is about mutual, informed and specific, communication. This point specifically addresses how people in IT use opt-out consent. They require people to revoke their consent after already taking what they wanted instead of asking for consent before any actions have been taken—which is the exact opposite of how it should go.

Now, people may think that opt-out is just reversing consent, but people in tech also hide what they are doing with your data through legal jargon, when they could and should break it down for people to understand what is going on. This does not allow for mutual consent, either, as only one party understands what is being consented to, but the person consenting does not. When there is no communication happening, consent cannot be informed, specific, mutual, and likely not freely given, or affirmative. A lack of these qualities can nullify consent.

In any other social situation, if someone took your personal information (your phone, credit cards), your physical body or an image of you, or your child or an image of them, and did something with your items, person, or child, and made that public, or made money off of it: you could likely take legal actions. I do not mean to imply that because these actions already have protections in laws, that they are more valid forms of consensual/non-consensual interactions, or that it would be that simple to resolve these issues. These examples are more to point out that we often do consider consent with in-person interactions. Why do tech people who do not understand the basic principles on interacting with others keep getting put in charge or keep making “community” tools?

People often assume, incorrectly, that if something or someone is “public” then consent is not needed. If you were in public, and someone came up and threatened you or touched you, or stole art that you created for themselves, without consent: again, there could be legal action. State laws vary when it comes to video or photos of others, which is why I did not include that as an example, but consent should be involved in this. Many TV programs blur out people’s faces who do not consent to being involved, many photographers ask folks to sign consent forms when the photos or videos taken will become more public. Why do we accept non-consensual and predatory behaviors online?

When someone is creating online (posts, blogs, art), it is theirs—even if it is public. Taking people’s words or art and putting it somewhere else without consent and crediting is wrong. Taking their words or art and making a public database of that information without consent is not only wrong, but potentially harmful to the individual whose data has been stolen. There are many people who shield their identity online for privacy, and/or safety. Side-stepping that and making all their information publicly searchable, regardless of what they want, can make them a target or allow for those who already target them to find them more easily. You can avoid crossing people’s boundaries and/or putting people in harms way by simply using a model with consent at it’s heart.