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EPSRC Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy

Published: 1 May 2013

New grant awarded to Prof. MC Schraefel - member of the SoNG group.

Exploring New Economic Models in the Digital Economy.  

A £780,000 EPSRC research grant has been awarded to Prof. MC Schraefel of ECS and Dr. Stephen Rhys Thomas of Management to investigate mechanisms of consent in digital transactions, leading a multidisciplinary team from Southampton drawn from ECS, Management and Economics, and actively partnering with Natasa Milic-Freyling of Microsoft Research and a global network of research, industry and policy partners.  The successful bid was in response to the EPSRC Digital Economy call for New Economic Models, specifically requesting multi-disciplinary research bids involving computer science, management and economics to address the grand challenges of New Economic Models in the digital age.


Mapping the Terrain of Digital Consent.

Digital intrusion is something we increasingly have to live with, be it endless e-mail or high-street surveillance, but the recent ‘cookie law' highlights the tip of an iceberg of potentially more serious unaddressed issues around consent for use of digital data around you and your activities or ‘profile'.  Presently, when you click to ‘accept' the licence terms of an apparently (and usually actually) harmless software update on the web, and like most of us don't read the licence terms, you are giving a ‘meaningless' consent. The propagation of something as simple as that accepting double-click on Google generates many links beyond your vision or consent, and may be sold as data to third party ‘affiliates' seeking information about you and people like you.  That may or may not worry you........


Understanding the Parameters of Digital Intrusion.

Now imagine you're sitting at a cafe, enjoying that capuccino, and someone you do not know approaches you and without asking, begins taking photographs of you. You'd probably at the very least query it, and quite likely take offence.  Now imagine that the same thing happens, this time with a video camera:  now you would almost certainly take offence, and quite possibly offensive action.  But these are really minor incursions:  these digital images, after all, stay local to the recording device.  Now imagine someone sitting opposite you wearing fancy glasses and just looking at you; maybe that's not so bad.  Except that those specs are Google Glass(es), and they are recording everything the wearer sees and streaming it straight to the web; yep, that's right, online, searchable, shareable, traceable. Not so comfortable now, are you? Identity theft? Stalking? Worse? Such new technologies clearly challenge convention and demand new social norms and policies.


Developing Policies for ‘Meaningful' Consent.

Our 2.5-year research program is called "Meaningful Consent", and involves developing a global research community to explore the economic, business and social consequences of advancing digital technology and its implications for policy, in this case focused on the virtual absence of mechanisms and policies for informed consent in digital transactions. The program will use a range of technology probes and test situations to explore the technical feasibility and social/user acceptability of consent paradigms, and use this data to drive deeper consideration of the impact for digital business models and further neuroeconomic understanding of human consent behaviour in digital contexts, the better to frame informed social and economic policy. 


Our Research Challenge.

‘The technology imposes few limits' comments Professor MC Schraefel, who leads the project overall and the computer science in particular, ‘so society has to if it's interested in its own well-being.'  ‘But policies cannot be defined arbitrarily', adds co-director Dr Stephen Rhys Thomas, who leads the business and economic models side of the project, ‘we can't risk impeding the way citizens prefer to operate or impairing the efficiency of businesses or economies through the unconsidered application of policy, any more than we would want unbridled technology chaos; hence this research.'  After the banking crisis, do we really need a reminder of what happens when the rules get out of hand?

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