Most people hear the word consent and their mind jumps immediately to sex. That’s okay, we’re only human.
Yet, over the past decade, the concept of consent has become the focal point of many high profile events that run the gambit of societal issues. This term, that seems so specific in its meaning, can be very broadly interpreted and has both personal and sweeping implications in that interpretation. It can be used in topics related to sexual behavior, data privacy, or even the right to be or not to be governed. We live in an age where consent is finally being taken seriously in some realms of society, while it is being openly disregarded in others. Have we finally realized what’s important, have our priorities changed, or are we being taken advantage of while we are distracted by other issues?
On the positive side, movements like Arab Spring and the #MeToo movement have demonstrated that societies on an international scale are not going to ignore the violation of consent anymore. Of course, there is a long and hard road to be traveled before the goals of these movements, which I distill down to personal freedom from oppression and the fear of being oppressed, are realized. Yet, the dam has been cracked, Pandora’s box opened, and there is no putting the skeletons back in the closet. These conversations around consent, whether it be sexual, or consent to be governed, have been productive, if painful, and move our species in a direction of growth and change. Social media has played an enormous supporting role in both of these movements, amplifying the voices of those who are being oppressed, or providing a safe amount of space and community for those threatened to feel empowered to raise their voice. While the reasons we even have to have these movements turn my stomach, the resulting solidarity lifts my spirits and makes me proud to be part of a generation that will not sit idly by to injustices of the most egregious nature. A generation that shouts “Consent is not a suggestion – it is the law, and we will hold you accountable!”
Yet all the while consent is being taken advantage of in different parts of our modern world. Of course, I am talking about personal data. The ability to deny consent to share your information has become so opaque that I don’t think there is one person reading this today that could draw me a diagram of which entities have access or ownership of their data. If you have any app, shop online, use online banking, use a streaming service, are on social media, or even use email or the telephone, your data is out there. In the wrong hands, this data can be powerfully misused, from Cambridge Analytica to actual real-life stalkers.
Most of these data protection or privacy agreements that you sign up to are so broad in their description of what you are consenting to that they might as well just say “we take everything”. You know why? Because you have to virtually give it all away to use any modern service today – even apps to pay a stupid parking meter. In other words, because you’re still going to sign the damn thing. Is this consent? Or this forced consent? If I can’t use your service without allowing you to share my data with the ambiguous “third-party provider” then this is forced consent. When you download an app and it asks for permissions to your phone, contacts, etc. saying no means you cannot use the app. Not much of a choice there.
Here’s part of Facebook’s privacy agreement:
“Vendors, service providers and other partners:
We transfer information to vendors, service providers, and other partners who globally support our business, such as providing technical infrastructure services, analyzing how our Services are used, measuring the effectiveness of ads and services, providing customer service, facilitating payments, or conducting academic research and surveys. These partners must adhere to strict confidentiality obligations in a way that is consistent with this Data Policy and the agreements we enter into with them.“
To me, this is not as reassuring as they think it sounds. To me, it is focused more on enabling them to share your information as freely as they need, without much detail as to how they protect it.
So on the one hand, we have very real and serious issues around consent that are finally being confronted head-on, with people saying loud and clear that they have a basic human right to be left alone and unviolated. And on the other, we have other very real and serious issues where people have been wholly lackadaisical about the (mis)handling of their personal lives, trading privacy for convenience at the cost of not knowing whose hands their personal lives end up in.
This is a good time to make something very clear – I am not comparing rape or government oppression to identity theft, nor am I trying to make any one of these issues sound worse than the other. My point is simply this: consent is a something that exists in every aspect of our lives that should be respected, revered, and strictly enforced, no matter the issue. By the way, do you like FRIES?
I believe that the direction the EU is headed with GDPR is a huge step forward for wresting consent back from “Big Brother Tech”. I only hope we can do the same someday for actual Big Brother (I know you can see this NSA, and you, Zuck – hope you like it!). Technology, and the world at large, are progressing at such a breakneck pace that I think we often get tunnel vision for the new and cast aside the old with reckless abandon. Hungry for convenience, speed, and efficiency in all that we do, we are too quick to sacrifice security, privacy, and protection from power overwhelming. The military is now so large and omnipotent that the argument for a self-regulated militia to ensure that we are consenting to be governed has been rendered moot. The need for convenient and inexpensive commodities has fed a hungry giant by the name of Amazon to the point that it knows more about you than you probably even want to know. Facebook, well, you know that story there so I am not even going to bother for the fear of patronizing.
Like the #MeToo movement, like the Arab Spring, I hope that this wake-up call from Cambridge Analytica sparks a deeper set sense of ire and wariness for the corporate hunger for personal data. Unfortunately, like both of the aforementioned movements, there will likely be many more who fall victim to this type of activity before justice catches up to the wrongdoings of corporate America; if it ever does. In fact, there is an argument to made that companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are carving out a niche similar to the banks and car companies that let us down, as corporations that are just too big to fail. I, for one, don’t think anyone is too big to fail.
I hope that as citizens of a fast moving planet we can remember our history, avoid the mistakes of the past, and be brave enough to fight for a future where no country or corporation has the right to invade our personal privacy without clear and express consent. We owe that much to our forebears; we owe that much to our sisters and brothers; we owe that much to ourselves.