Challenges in Giving Consent Online

As we use digital texts and tools, we click through the consent documents to get the app, platform, or tool running. Most times we don’t take the time to think through what the consent documents are requesting. The challenge is that users often cannot trust the companies and developers to look out for our best interests as we use their tools.

User agreements

Terms of service (ToS), terms of use (ToU), or End-user License Agreement (EULA) are documents that technology companies and developers include with their products or services. There are slight differences between these documents (i.e., ToS, ToU, EULA) and Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs). AUPs cover large computing resources, such as websites or networks. AUPs emphasize etiquette and respect for fellow users (presumably not applicable to single-user programs or other computer services). One key difference is that ToS and ToU usually detail how they will interact with the user, and provide little guidance as to how to use the product or service.

To some extent, our everyday interactions in digital environments are dictated by a blanket of documents and agreements constructed from AUPs as well as other ToS or ToU. Individuals not only have to be aware of their own rights and privileges under these documents, but also educate and advocate for others (especially youth) as they use these tools and services.  

The “con” in consent

A recent post by the NY Times Editorial Board (How Silicon Valley puts the “con” in consent) suggests this is a fool’s errand.

The post asks a simple question. If no one reads the terms and conditions for the apps, platforms, and spaces we use on a daily basis…how can they continue to be the legal backbone of the Internet?

The average person would have to spend 76 working days reading all of the digital privacy policies they agree to in the span of a year. Reading Amazon’s terms and conditions alone out loud takes approximately nine hours.

The language of these legal documents should be easy to read and understand by not only the parties agreeing to the terms, but also the groups enforcing the document. AUPs, ToS, ToU, and EULA documents are often too long, too complex, and not transparent. The end result is that the document is not easy to read, understand, or enforce.

Why would anyone read the terms of service when they don’t feel as though they have a choice in the first place? It’s not as though a user can call up Mark Zuckerberg and negotiate his or her own privacy policy. The “I agree” button should have long ago been renamed “Meh, whatever.”

Media and web literacy instruction should include guidance not only for the development of skill use in these tools, but also the comprehension of these documents. More transparency is needed for these documents (i.e., AUPs, ToS, ToU, EULA) to ensure that they are written in a manner that is easy to understand and follow.  

Americans deserve strong privacy protections. Consent is not enough to replace them. The clicks that pass for consent are uninformed, non-negotiated and offered in exchange for services that are often necessary for civic life. It’s time to start seeing the “I agree” button for what it really is.

Digital networks, websites, and services are a necessary component of the toolset required to build and utilize digital and media literacies. Appropriate policies, procedures, and guidelines are necessary to protect the developers and administrators of these texts and tools, as well as the users of these spaces. These documents often fail to provide users with the freedom needed to expand their skills, while still creating safe and appropriate boundaries for use of the Internet and all it has to offer.

To prepare individuals to be digitally savvy, media literate citizens, there is a need for guideline guidelines, discussions, and agreed upon policies that emphasize successful practice and define the suitable use of the technology and tools being used.

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About the author

Ian O'Byrne

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne is a educator, researcher, & speaker. His work centers on teaching, learning, and technology. He investigates the literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online & hybrid spaces.

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