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Concern over ‘consent’ people give when sending information — human rights committee

Reading Time: 4 minutes

  • Individuals are giving away “vast amounts of data” and are expected to be risk-aware when using web based services 
  • “The consent model is broken”: Robust regulation is needed to govern how personal data is used and stringent enforcement of the rules
  • “Deeply troubling” evidence that data being used to discriminate in job and housing adverts online

The UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) is reporting serious grounds for worry that are shared by many nations around the world. They highlight concern about the nature of the “consent” people provide when giving over an extraordinary range of information about themselves, to be used for commercial gain by private companies:

  • Privacy policies are too complicated for the vast majority of people to understand: while individuals may understand they are consenting to data collection from a given site in exchange for “free” access to content, they may not understand that information is being compiled, without their knowledge, across sites to create a profile. The Committee heard alarming evidence about eye tracking software being used to make assumptions about people’s sexual orientation, whether they have a mental illness, are drunk or have taken drugs: all then added to their profile.
  • Too often the use of a service or website is conditional on consent being given – raising questions about whether it is freely given.
  • People cannot find out what they have consented to: it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for people – even tech experts – to find out who their data has been shared with, to stop it being shared or to delete inaccurate information about themselves.
  • The consent model relies on individuals knowing about the risks associated with using web based services when the system should provide adequate protection from the risks as a default.
  • It is completely inappropriate to use consent when processing children’s data: children aged 13 and older are, under the current legal framework, considered old enough to consent to their data being used, even though many adults struggle to understand what they are consenting to.

There is a real risk of discrimination against some groups and individuals through the way this data is used. The committee it heard deeply troubling evidence about some companies using personal data to ensure that only people of a wanted demographics viewed material. This could mean that only those of specified sex, age or race, for example, see a particular job opportunity or housing advertisement.

There are also long-established concerns about the use of such data to discriminate in provision of insurance or credit products.

Unlike traditional print advertising where such blatant discrimination would be obvious and potentially illegal  personalisation of content means people have no way of knowing how what they see online compares to anyone else. Some online media, for example, ban comments to articles from non-feminists, so that only positive comments are read by readers of feminist propaganda.

Short of whistle-blowers or work by investigative journalists, there currently appears to be no mechanism for protecting against such privacy breaches or discrimination being in the online “Wild West” as the JCHR put it.

The JCHR says:

  • The “consent model is broken” and should not  be used as a blanket basis for processing. It is impossible for people to know what they are consenting to when making a non-negotiable, take it-or-leave-it “choice” about joining services like Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube based on lengthy, complex T&Cs, subject to future changes to terms.
  • This model puts too much onus on the individual, but the responsibility of knowing about the risks with using web based services cannot be on the individual.  The Government should strengthen regulation to ensure there is safe passage on the internet guaranteed
  • Its completely inadequate to use consent when it comes to processing children’s data,. If adults struggle to understand complex consent agreements, how do we expect our children to give informed consent? The Committee says setting the digital age of consent at 13 years old should be revisited. 
  • The UK Government should be regulating to keep people safe online in the same way as they do in the real world – not by expecting everyone to become technical experts who can judge whether our data is being used appropriately but by having strictly enforced standards that protect our right to privacy and freedom from discrimination.
  • It should be made much simpler for individuals to see what data has been shared about them, and with whom, and to prevent some or all of their data being shared.
  • The JCHR called on the UK Government to look at creating a single online registry that would allow people to see, in real time, all the companies that hold personal data on them, and what data they hold.

Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.

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