Consent is a part of many parts our lives from intimate encounters to pop up boxes on a website. Many laws are built around it. And it has a problem. An old problem.
The foundations of the idea of consent are based on the premise of people being ‘free and equal’. This notion stems from the social contract theoretical work of philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, who lived around 350 years ago. Now before you run for the hills, I’m not going to go all philosophical on you. ‘Free and equal’ is a nice idea in a vacuum but far from reality. We don’t have to look far to remind ourselves that life is far from equal. Just look at gender, race, access to food, and so on.
‘Free and equal’ ignores power. In our aid work, those affected by a disaster do not have a choice which agency they engage with. Yes, technically they could decide not to receive aid, but when your family, your children are starving, without a home, or badly hurt, is that truly an option? And it would be extremely difficult to argue the person affected by the crisis is equal or has equal power to the aid worker or aid agency. Therefore, those we seek to serve are not ‘free and equal’ and so does consent make sense?
But we ask for consent to collect their data. We ask for it because legally we are told we have to have it. So we do, a box is ticked, various legal responsibilities are transferred to the person in need, and we get on with the job. We use consent to take data about the person and then claim it is ours. It is our ‘property’ now. And they have ‘consented’ to us taking it from them.
There is something that doesn’t feel ‘right’ about this to me. Perhaps to you as well?
Data. Information about a person. We treat it like property. And yet, it is still something the person maintains and can be ‘given’ to many others. A bit like their skills, but we don’t treat their skills like property. We separate information about the person from the person, but we don’t separate their skills from them.