Consent without words?

by | Dec 19, 2018 | ICT4D, Ideas |

Sitting down in a local Starbucks, I connected to their ‘free’ wifi and the usual (and annoying) consent boxes popped up.  Instead of immediately clicking the “I accept” button as I normally do, I decided to click “Find out more”.  I quickly regretted my decision as 20 pages of heavy legal language filled my screen.  20 pages!!  I started to read the document and soon lost the will to live so clicked “I accept” and moved on.

As I sipped my drink, I was reminded of a completely different experience I had when I signed up with my current accounting firm.  There were various legal documents I needed to sign and terms I needed to agree to and yet it was clear they had thought about.  They would present the documents in two columns on the screen, the first the pure legal documentation broken up by section or paragraph.  The second corresponding column had a ‘plain english’ version of each section or paragraph.  I found it both thoughtful and helpful as I could quickly read the plain english version and double check the legal language if I so desired.  It was the first time I had interacted with an organisation who seemed to care about their customers in this way and acknowledge that while they needed the legal bits to cover their own risk, they also understood most of us are not lawyers and prefer plain english.

With the next sip of my drink, my mind thought about my current work in the humanitarian space and how, if we ask for consent, our approach is often closer to a Starbucks approach.  At minimum I thought we should be doing something like the approach of the accounting firm and yet that likely would still be quite a poor experience for the beneficiary even if the ‘plain english’ version wasn’t english at all but the local language of the community we were working in.  

As my drink neared its end, I noticed a little symbol on the bottom a take away cup on the table next to me (clearly take away for that customer didn’t mean leaving the shop!).  The symbol was of a person throwing their cup into a bin (i.e. don’t litter, put your rubbish in a bin). No words, just an image.  And so I began to wonder, how could we communicate data rights, consent to people in images not words?  What would those images be? Would it be effective?  How could this work across different cultures?  Or maybe in some places, a short theatrical play would work better? Not sure how to make it interesting, but I’m sure some incredibly story tellers can help figure it out.

My guess is some sort of combination of legal, plain language, images, and stories is the way forward if we truly want our customers or those we work with to have a better understanding of their rights and what we are doing with their data.  Will we reach true, informed, and explicit consent? Unlikely, due to multiple reasons, but it should increase awareness and communicates that we care not only about our organisation but also about those with whom we work.


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