Wednesday’s class discussion centering on the WSJ’s article exploring the legal disputes involving emojis got me thinking for my blog post. For those that didn’t get a chance to read it, you can find the article here. What stuck out to me about the article most, though, was this reoccurring theme that people use technology to communicate in increasingly strange, unique and unconventional ways. Arnold Daniels, the founder of a Dutch company called LegalThings, must have gotten the same impression and then decided, “I want to take this 3,000 steps too far!” From there, LegalFlings was born.
So what is LegalFlings exactly? Well, more or less, exactly what it sounds like. LegalThings is the first app of its kind to use blockchain to request and verify consent prior to two parties engaging in any sort of sexual activity. Say whaaaaaat?
Let’s Talk About Sex, Ba-by
Because I suppose you all are now itching to download the app, I should caveat that this app is still being developed and will continue to be developed “until [they] have enough supporters for [their] project.” Nevertheless, LegalFlings has already put forward a relatively detailed plan on how the app will work.
Step 1: Download the app and fill in your sexual preferences.
Step 2: Anyone you’re interested in? Using your choice of SMS, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Telegram, send he or she a “request for consent.” All of the preferences you filled out previously are communicated within that message.
Step 3: Wait for your partner(s) to respond. Given that he or she provides consent, the app automatically matches you all’s preferences and communicates it to the other. The website does not specify what occurs when a partner refuses to give consent. One could only hope that this is communicated just as clearly.
Step 4: Given that your partner provides consent, allow the app to create a virtual contract. To create the contract, the app relies heavily on a “Live Contract,” also developed by the same company that created LegalFlings, LegalThings. A mouthful. Live Contract redefines the idea of a legal document by creating a digital, interactive agreement shared only with the parties it involves. Each element of the contract is anchored in the blockchain through hashing. I had to do a little brushing up on my blockchain knowledge to understand why this was so revolutionary—this WIRED article was particularly helpful. Basically, though, when the contract is created, it is stored on a decentralized ledger, which means that no one computer has access to the information, making it prone to hacking.
Step 5: Continually update the app with any changes to your preferences or consent. This step is a still little unclear to me. At one point on the company’s website, they say that you can revoke consent at any time (Thanks for permission, LegalFlings!) but you should never use the app to do so. Instead, they argue that revoking consent is always done verbally. For an app that boasts its ability to “get explicit about sexual consent,” I would think they would provide an option to revoke it on the platform as well. What becomes more confusing is that in other various points on the website, LegalFling discusses the ability of Live Contracts to continually update the contract with any changes. This would be a good feature if only you had the option to revoke consent on the app, something I would absolutely consider a major change to a “contract.”
Step 6: Report any non-consensual actions. Or, as they refer to it, a “breach of contract.” Because Live Contracts creates 100% legal documents, any non-consensual acts are treated as a breach of contract and can be prosecuted as such. According to their website, LegalFlings is able to take the next steps once a user reports a breach of contract. This includes taking action to send out Cease and Desist letters.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say, Don’t Say Anything At All
My mom would be proud of me for remembering that little tagline; angry at me for not saying anything nice (in all 1,200 words); and, then, of course, excuse me for my lack of compliments about an app as appalling and atrocious as this one.
To me, it was so obvious why using an app and blockchain to request and give consent was fundamentally wrong.
- Sex and other sexual acts are NOT something that should be contractually bound.
- Consent is NOT something you “accept” before heading out for the night. Instead, it is ongoing and fluid, dependent on the time and person.
- Technology that prides itself on permanence (cough, cough…blockchain) should NOT be used for something so evolving and time-specific as consent.
I would argue that LegalFlings not only represents a gross lack of understanding around consent but also shapes a very dangerous, unpromising conversation about what it should be going forward. By providing their users the opportunity to give and accept consent in this way, LegalFlings continually suggests that consent is simple. Black and white. All the time.
Text on their website reinforces my point that they are shaping a very dangerous dialogue. They argue that you should get consent ahead of time because you “don’t want to ruin the moment.” Asking for consent is NOT ruining the moment. Rather, it is ensuring that the moments to come are not ruined. I wish I had the space to pick apart more elements of their website; to argue more thoroughly about why this is so wrong. But, for a 1,200 word blog post, this will have to do for now.
A side note: I haven’t seen Black Mirror but plenty of articles have mentioned that LegalFlings’ purpose is eerily similar to one of the episode’s plot line. Since we’ve already had some discussion and tweets around this, I thought this might be something you all are more familiar with.
In fear of being close-minded, I’d like to end the post by telling you all that I did a lot of reading to try to come up with some merits to the platform. From different articles I read, some “merits” include:
- In markets where prostitution is legal, LegalFlings has potential in helping sex workers negotiate with their clients (Daily Dot).
- LegalFlings allows partners to establish a legal contract around distributing nude photos or sexually explicit videos (Bustle).
I have to say, I’m not sure how much in agreement I am with the merits, particularly the first. Even in a legal market for sexual acts, consent is still an ongoing conversation. Use of the app limits that, just as it does with non-transactional sexual acts.
So while technology can be used for many great things including revolutionizing the ways in which we all interact, I feel very strongly that LegalFlings violates, even ruins, this element of human interaction. As Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, put so eloquently, “there is such a long list of things that don’t belong on the blockchain, and [consent] is high on the list.”
Also, LegalThings, hire some women and learn how to spell “concent” before you start telling people how it can be given.