Consent and Digital Data at Allied Media Projects
When Allied Media Projects (AMP) and Threespot partnered in 2019 to redesign the AMP and Allied Media Conference websites, we sought to create a beautiful, joyful web experience that highlighted the work of the AMP network while demonstrating a respectful, responsible approach to privacy, data ownership, and consent.
In a very short period of time, the internet has evolved from a nerdy curiosity to a useful tool for information and productivity to now, the very means by which many people conduct much of their personal and professional lives. Today, it’s possible to work remotely, eat family meals via Zoom, pay bills from a phone, attend a virtual lecture, buy groceries on a website, and even meet a life partner online. In this new digital economy, data is currency and the internet is the only market in town.
While it’s now been playing out for decades, the so-called “digital revolution” occurred at warp speed compared to other megatrends on the global social-cultural timeline. Our pre-internet system of ethics has struggled to keep pace with the speedy growth rate of digital spaces. For example, who owns the images we post on social media networks? Does a search engine have a right to know our income brackets? Laws haven’t kept up, either. Efforts such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) have been critical to raising awareness about digital privacy and data ownership among people who use the internet casually, but their reach and scope are limited.
In the absence of broadly accepted and enforceable guidelines, corporations have run rampant, establishing a norm that favors their bottom lines at the expense of everyday people’s ability to own and control their own data. The majority of people don’t even know how their data is captured, stored, and used, making them vulnerable to cyber attacks, hyper-focused marketing that treats their attention as a commodity, and damaging emotional manipulation by social media platforms.
When Detroit-based Allied Media Projects (AMP) and Threespot partnered in 2019 to redesign the AMP and Allied Media Conference websites, we sought to create a beautiful, joyful web experience that highlighted the work of the AMP network while demonstrating a respectful, responsible approach to privacy, data ownership, and consent.
The Consentful Tech Project raises awareness, develops strategies, and shares skills to help people build and use technology in ways that prioritize the consent and self-determination of people who use and are affected by these technologies. The Consentful Tech Project puts forward a framework of good digital consent that was drawn from the movement to end gender-based violence. According to this framework, good consent is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. This stands in sharp contrast to big tech’s coercive and dangerous conception of consent.
AMP cultivates media for liberation by supporting a global network of social justice-focused media creators and community organizers. The people and communities that make up much of AMP’s network — queer, disabled, poor, racialized, and migrant — are disproportionately impacted by unconsentful systems. Coercive consent practices by social media companies, data brokers, and law enforcement cultivate a data ecosystem that is characterized by harassment, surveillance, racial profiling, and redlining of these communities.
AMP, as a leading organization in the digital justice movement, found alignment with the Consentful Tech Project’s framework. When the time came to select an analytics provider for its new website, AMP challenged Threespot to find a way to model its commitment to building and using technology consentfully. AMP wanted to know, “How might we design a consentful analytics strategy that provides useful data while protecting our communities’ safety?”
Many websites — either by choice or as compelled by law — offer visitors an opportunity to opt out of cookies and other behavior-tracking technologies. However, we wanted to take the idea of consentful tech one step further in developing the AMP website and the Allied Media Conference website for 2020, and so we created an opt-in approach to acquiring visitor data. Only when site visitors proactively indicate that they consent to their actions being recorded do the websites capture any data whatsoever.
AMP’s primary objective in adopting this approach was to embody the principles we seek to promote. However, we also thought it was an important opportunity to inform and educate site visitors about consentful technology. It is not enough not to surreptitiously track behavior; we also want visitors to know that they are not being monitored without permission and why. As such, the user interface design of every page of the two sites includes a conspicuous, persistent button that informs visitors in plain language whether or not their browsing session is being tracked. Clicking or tapping the button launches a modal explaining AMP’s tracking policy, provides links to relevant resources, and allows visitors to opt into data tracking if they wish.
AMP wanted an alternative to the ubiquitous Google Analytics platform, about whose data sharing practices little is known. That’s why we opted to use Matomo, a privacy-focused nonprofit platform, to capture and store data for the small percentage of site visitors who choose to allow the website to track their behavior. Crucially, Matomo offers an on-premise data storage option, which gives its customers confidence that data collected about their site visitors can be securely stored, freely purged, and otherwise maintained in a safe, controlled environment.
The decision to find another way to collect data came about through a lively and lengthy conversation at AMP. While there was broad understanding of the ways that analytics systems can harm marginalized communities, there were also concerns that not having access to this data would limit the organization’s ability to fundraise and improve the site’s user experience (UX).
To mitigate these tradeoffs, AMP ultimately committed to an alternative strategy for collecting user data that works in alignment with its values. AMP plans to reach out to its network periodically with surveys and interview requests to gather only the information and feedback that would be pertinent for fundraising, reporting, and UX improvements. In creating this model for a consentful approach to user data, AMP challenged the foundation and nonprofit community to reject big tech’s intrusive and dangerous data practices.
Acting in good faith and with respect for the rights of people who use digital products is becoming a legal imperative. It’s good business, too. But most importantly, it is the right thing to do.
We’ve come a long way since the early days of the internet. As social norms and expectations evolve, those changes must be reflected in our interactions in both the physical and digital worlds. For organizations that conduct some or all of their operations online, finding an ethical, defensible approach to its relationship with digital audiences will force tough decisions that challenge business as usual. Frameworks like the one provided by the Consentful Tech Project suggest a pathway that places the rights and interests of people first.
Una Lee is the design director at Allied Media Projects and creative director at And Also Too. Una is a steering committee member and co-founder of the Design Justice Network and leads the Consentful Tech Project.