Often when I listen to the radio, I’ll hear an advert asking if I’ve been ‘missold’ something. A few years ago it was PPI and recently I heard one about timeshares. I don’t know what PPI is and I didn’t buy a timeshare in the ’90s so I’m quite certain the adverts don’t apply to me. However, there have been many things I’ve bought that I felt misled by. And by ‘bought’ I’m not just thinking of physical items or services, but ideas and concepts too.
Beyond food, nutritionm, and health, one of the biggest conceptual ideas I often feel misled by is ‘consent’ in the data and digital space.
Over the past decade or so, in sexual violence (incl. rape) some countries have shifted from needing to prove you did not consent, to proving that consent was given by all parties. This is partly in response to cases where men had sex with a person who was sleeping or passed out. Consent was not possibly to have obtained. Understandably, consent is huge topic in communities dealing with all types of sexual violence. And understandably, it is understood to be closely connected to power (of all types).
Weirdly, in the data management space, especially in humanitarian contexts, we’ve reduced consent to a few words and a tick box. We have forgotten (or more accurately, we’ve ignored) any acknowledgement of power. We’ve been misled to think consent is meaningful or informed even though we don’t consider power dynamics.
“Consent should be always considered in the context of power relations. Autonomy is relational and if a power relationship is not such that you have real autonomy, then consent can never be meaningful.”Anja Kovacs
We use the ‘tick box’ to enable us to do whatever we want with data about vulnerable people. It’s not consent when there are no alternatives. It’s not consent when we force hungry people to choose between giving us their data in exchange for food or for them and their families to go hungry. This is coercion.
My dream for the future is that humanitarians stop talking about consent, but instead focus on, no compete over, which organisation can be the best at awareness, access, and alternatives. And perhaps portability can be the cherry on top.
The choice is up to us.