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03/07/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Big data, consent and privacy

I wonder if it is possible to re-imagine our relationship to tech into one where all parties are informed, and willing to engage in more productive conversations about safety and privacy.


LLet’s talk about sex, baby.
Now that I caught your attention, let’s actually talk about radical transparency and honesty in the tech world.

A few months ago I attended The Next Web Conference (TNW). For the non tech and marketing-geeks out there, TNW is the biggest tech event in the Netherlands. Investors, startups and inspiring speakers meet for two days of brainstorming, pitching, discussing the future of tech and drinking beer. As an intern, lowest of the low in the tech food chain, I thought everything was awesome and took advantage of the opportunity to jump from one workshop to the other.

In my quest for entertainment and deliverance from all sorts of responsibilities (hello, deadlines), a few days ago I stumbled upon a video of my favorite talk at TNW – a hilarious, informative and poignant take on what data means to us and what companies ought to do with it. It was delivered by Stephanie Alys, CPO of MysteryVibe. For your information, CPO stands for Chief Pleasure Officer and MysteryVibe is a sextech company, designing innovative products and redefining what pleasure means in a positive and empowering way.

SexTech, data & privacy
The starting point for Alys’ talk are the existing challenges faced by a sextech company like MyteryVibe. Smart toys open up new, unexpected opportunities for pleasure, intimacy, and could help swapping embarrassment and taboo-like silences with rewarding, empowering conversations about sexuality. To do that, they must collect data. And it’s pretty scary to think that a toy could know your every dirty little secret – right? That is why a company like MysteryVibe has developed a new understanding of what it means to communicate with customers about what they do, how they do it, and why. They seek ‘informed and enthusiastic consent’ from their customers. Everyone needs to understand what is going on, what the limits, risks and benefits are, and make an active choice to participate.

Now, raise your hand if you have ever taken the time to read the terms and conditions before creating your Facebook account.

Nobody?

Yeah, I thought so.

Sextech companies are not the only companiesout there making use of user-generated data. Think of Facebook (yes, yes, enough with the anti-Facebook tirades), or of any other app on your phone to which terms you agreed without ever really reading them. For some reason, we seem to hold those companies to very different standards. Perhaps no standards at all. In the video, Alys talks about the impossibly daunting lengths of Paypal’s and Kindle’s user agreements. Respectively twenty-eight thousand and over seventy thousand words of inaccessible legal jargon that nobody has ever truly bothered with. What does that mean for us, the users?

Agreement is not consent
The relationship we are establishing with those service providers is deeply unbalanced and flawed – and we should be doing so much better than that. What ‘regular’ tech companies are seeking is agreement, a simplistic view of what it means for a user to engage with their products. It demands a passive response, and it does not provide real, accessible information – or any choice at all for that matter. You must agree, or you won’t be able to sign up, or download. Is that really the type of relationship we want to engage in?

Alys’ talk has made me think about the way I would like to be perceived and addressed as a user. Beyond the regular headlines of moral panic concerning what those evil tech giants are doing to our data (Boo Facebook! Let’s go back to the caves for some real human interaction!), I wonder if it is possible to re-imagine our relationship to tech into one where all parties are informed, and willing to engage in more productive conversations about safety and privacy.

Let’s abandon the jargon, shall we? Let’s start demanding clarity, accessibility and respect.

Cover: Michael Prewett

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