Everyday when parents join new services, download new apps, connect with others on social media or buy the latest home devices, they often sign off the terms and conditions that decide how their children’s data is used without reading them. What I am finding out when I talk to parents is that the reason why they don’t read the Terms and Conditions is not simply because they ‘don’t have time’ or because the policies are often too long, obscure and non-transparent (which now is changing thanks to the GDPR), but because they feel that they have ‘no choice’.
What choice would they have if their son’s school uses an app with an ambiguous data policy apart from signing off the Terms and Conditions? Or if other parents communicate via a Facebook Group? And again how can they opt out if their most trusted pediatrician stores medical information on an outsourced and privately owned platform? Do they change the doctor? Do they ask the school to use a different app? Do they deliberately choose not to join the Facebook group?
Maybe. The truth is that often this is not the case. Everyday social relationships are so much intertwined with these digital realities that parents are left with the impossibility of opting out. In this context their digital participation is no longer a choice. It is a form of coercion.
It is for this reason that in the last couple of months I have been working and writing about the feeling of coercion of digital participation. In my papers I describe this as a sense of uneasiness and worry as well as a perception of inevitability and powerlessness that defines parents’ interactions with “Terms and Conditions”.
Louise (fictional name), the mother of two-girls living in London once tried to describe this feeling:
“Initially I felt that you could opt out of it. So I started signing in with my first initials but then increasingly a lot of services didn’t allow initials. At the moment they seem to want always more information, like your mobile phone, before it was optional whilst now its not.”
Like Louise many of the parents I interviewed, discussed the fact that it was impossible for them to opt out specific services and digital realities, and mentioned the inevitable “loss of control” over their children’s data. In some cases I met parents who were very anxious about the ways in which that data was being used and passed on and they questioned the way it could impact on their children’s future.
Are new Data Regulations Changing this?
Well the answer is yes to a certain extent. On the 25th of May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation was enforced in the EU after 2 years of transitional period, this implies that all companies (whether they are based in Europe or not) need to abide to it if they are dealing with the personal data of EU citizens. In sum, the main changes that the regulation has brought since the 1995 EU Data Protection Directive are that: 1. a strengthening of individuals’ personal data rights (e.g. all companies need to make their practices more transparent, and users have to give explicit consent) 2. an increase in the fines for ensuring compliance (fines can now can go up to €20 million).
The GDPR, along with the other data regulations that are being implemented (e.g. in California), are an important step forward. Yet there are still significant issues that are emerging when we think about consent. In the first place, even if policies have become more transparent and user friendly, parents give away their consent by signing off Terms and Conditions without reading them because they still believe that they don’t have a choice. In a second place, companies have tried to manipulate users into giving up their consent. A key example is represented by the investigation by the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC), which has shown how Facebook, Google and to some extent Microsoft, are running consumers out of privacy-friendly options on their services in an “unethical”way. In the third place, as highlighted by Privacy International public debate often focuses on the personal data that is willingly disclosed by users, yet little attention is being placed on the fact that companies and governments are relying less on data we provide and instead are looking at data they can observe, derive, and infer.
In this context, consent becomes a problematic issue one that needs to be understood by looking at our everyday realities and by critically reflecting on our everyday practices.
So what Can We do?
I think the first important step is to recognise that the ‘coercion of digital participation’ is a common feeling and shared experience. Once we do so we can start asking the following questions:
- What technologies are being used by our schools, our healthcare providers, our social worlds? Who read the Terms and Conditions and who has agreed to those terms?
- How can we work together towards assuring that we make more strategic communication choices which safeguard our privacy?
- How can we demand that our services become more transparent and accountable for the ways in which data is used?
What we need to understand is that at present the issue at heart is not only one about privacy, and about the individual responsibility of parents. It is a collective issue, one that we should start tackling together as organisations, as institutions and as a collective of people. This is because we are all finding ourselves coerced into providing more and more personal information to providers who in return guarantee minimal transparency and accountability for the ways our data and the data of our children is used.
If you have the time to share your experience and thoughts, I am interested to hear what you think here below. If not, and you are interested in the issue, you can listen to a talk I gave at UCLA at Reclaiming Expertise: Research and Inquiry Conference, 3 May 2018 titled: Child | Data | Citizen: Datafication, Algorithmic Inaccuracies and the Profiling of Future Citizens. You can also look out for the following paper, which is currently under review with the Sociological Research Online and titled ‘Digital Citizenship in the Age of Coerced Digital Participation’.