A new study identifies a political economic interface design strategy that threatens privacy protections by maintaining “the biggest lie on the internet.”

We check the box. We lie. We ignore policies. We dismiss the impediment. We desire the end goal. We click “I agree” as quickly as possible.

“I agree to the terms and conditions” is the biggest lie on the internet, and we are to blame.

In a new studyAnne Oeldorf-Hirsch and I take this reality a step further and suggest that service providers are also to blame. In “The Clickwrap: A Political Economic Mechanism for Manufacturing Consent on Social Media,” published in Social Media + Society, we argue that clickwraps, employed by many social media services, help users circumvent consent materials quickly by placing individuals in express lanes to monetized sections of services. In so doing, providers normalize the dismissal of notice policy instruments and maintain the status quo, all by ensuring we experience “the ends of digital production, without being inhibited by an education or a discussion about the means” (Obar, 2015, p. 16).

What is a clickwrap? We describe a clickwrap as “a digital prompt that enables the user to provide or withhold their consent to a policy or set of policies by clicking a button, checking a box, or completing some other digitally mediated action.” Clickwraps are common to social media signup processes (see Figure 1), and to other digital service scenarios, such as connecting to WiFi at an airport. Clickwraps are generally comprised of an enticing “Join” or “Agree” button, and then a less noticeable statement suggesting that by clicking the button (or checking a box and then clicking), you agree to the referenced policies. The policies are usually absent. Instead, users are provided links to policies posted elsewhere.

Figure 1: Social Media Clickwrap Examples. Source: Obar, J. A. and Oeldorf-Hirsch, A. (2018). The clickwrap: A political economic mechanism for manufacturing consent on social media. Social Media + Society, July-September 2018, 4.

In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) wrote: “(If) the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse […] the standard view of how the system works is at serious odds with reality” (p. xi). Our survey of more than 500 participants suggests that users like clickwraps because they make online consent processes “quick,” “simple,” and “convenient.” We react to these findings and argue that by hiding the details that might encourage dissent in the context of Big Data systems, and by training us to acquiesce to a hegemonic, digitally-mediated self-indulgence, those that employ clickwraps threaten user privacy through the manufacture of consent.

Before unpacking these concerns, let’s clarify some details about privacy policy potential.

Privacy policies are far more than boring legalese. Beyond the (ironically limited) information provided about data collection, management, retention and use—details necessary to the future of digital reputation management—policies often contain opportunities for individuals to pursue forms of dissent. Privacy policies reference applicable law and regulation that users could review to find out more about their rights. They often include contact information for privacy officers, ombudsmen, privacy advocacy initiatives and organizations, government agencies and more, where users might ask questions and seek assistance towards advancing that dissent. Some more developed privacy sections contain links to dashboards, opt-out mechanisms and other opportunities for engaging in (admittedly problematic) data privacy self-management. Beyond the terms of the adhesion contract, sections of sites and apps where privacy policies are hosted might also be seen as portals for privacy engagement and support.

Perhaps these are the reasons service providers employ clickwraps: they keep people away from these portals, speeding happy prosumers towards an ad-supported, Big Data-generating firehose.

Hiding the Details that Might Encourage Dissent

How do clickwraps manufacture consent? Close to 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann (1922) argued that communication technologies facilitate the “manufacture of consent” (p. 158) by shaping our worldview and self-governance potential. In the 1980s, Herman and Chomsky’s book advanced the dialogue with five media gatekeeping filters. The filter addressed in our study is advertising, describing how the power of advertiser dollars shapes our media. The concept of the “buying mood” is especially relevant. About television they wrote, “Advertisers will want, more generally, to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the ‘buying mood’. They seek programs that will lightly entertain and thus fit in with the spirit of the primary purpose of program purchases—dissemination of a selling message” (pp. 17-18).

We argue that clickwraps fulfill a similar political economic function. They keep users away from details that might encourage critical inquiry or questioning of data practice, and instead move them speedily towards monetization. Herbert Marcuse (1964) once described the mindset structured by such a process as “euphoria in unhappiness” (p. 5).

How is this accomplished? In the study, we review the interface design choices of a variety of popular social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We also assess qualitative responses from 513 undergraduate participants collected in the fall of 2015. We asked participants about the consent process for a fictitious social network called NameDrop whose front page we designed and presented. Results suggest clickwraps demonstrate an agenda-setting function. Agenda-setting theory in the media context asserts that the shape and ordering of texts can impact salience. Content “above-the-fold” or search-engine-optimized is encountered first and likely more often, which can either direct how we remember or prioritize what we experience.

Clickwraps typically include a large, prominently-displayed “Join” or “Agree” button, often in the center of the interface. The policy links generally are smaller, not in the center of the page, and aren’t presented as a button. This distinction was identified by participants: “I will click join because the terms of service is very small and on the bottom. It’s not somewhere that you will see automatically. You have to look for it compared to the “Join” button where you can see it clearly, or it’s one of the first things you see.”

Training Us to Acquiesce to a Digitally-Mediated Self-Indulgence

The central themes identified in the analysis suggest that clickwraps fail to make users fully aware of the consent process by attributing a lack of importance to that process. This has the potential to train us to ignore policies, by discouraging engagement with privacy protections in general and consent processes in particular.

Participants referred to the NameDrop “Join” button as “prominent” and the policy links as “small” and “hidden.” Referring to the policy links, one participant said, “Because the print is so small, [I] assume it’s not important.” Some went a step further, suggesting a political economic motive behind the design, with one noting about the policy links: “They keep it private so you don’t think about it,” and another writing about clickwraps, “They are a way to lead you to think that their website is safe because they may be hiding something.”

Where this leads is habituation concern, with one participant saying about policies: “It feels like a cultural norm not to read them,” and another saying, “If there is a (clickwrap), I guess I am used to just doing that and not thinking about thoroughly reading the terms of service right away.” Repeated engagement with this political economic strategy appears to be having an impact, with another participant noting “I often do this without even realizing it.”

Indeed, the agenda-setting function of the clickwrap may not only serve the pragmatic function of the moment by diverting user attention away from policies, it may also serve a longer-term goal of training users not to see or even want opportunities for critical thought or dissent. These concerns are not new to critical studies of communication technology. Members of the Frankfurt School wrote at length about how the cultural industries train us to be consumers, and to even fight for a hegemonic order, demonstrating what Theodor Adorno (1976) once called a “fierce aversion to anything different” (p. 29).

Figure 2

In our related study “The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Services Policies of Social Networking Services,” published in Information, Communication and Society (Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018a), we further assessed participant engagement with NameDrop’s consent process by asking participants to review a fictitious privacy policy and terms of service agreement through the deception that participants would be testing the site (see Figure 2). The experimental survey revealed that 74 percent chose the clickwrap and agreed to policy without accessing or reading. Of the remaining that read either the privacy or terms of service policy (TOS), average reading time was about one minute, with a median of 14 seconds (policies combined totaled more than 12,000 words).

Most concerning however was that the TOS had a variety of “gotcha clauses,” including a first-born clause which stated “In exchange for service, all users of this site agree to immediately assign their first-born child to NameDrop.” Of the more than 500 participants, 93 percent accepted the TOS and 98 percent failed to identify the clause. While it is unlikely that NameDrop would ever have been able to accept children as payment, it is becoming increasingly clear that political economic mechanisms like the clickwrap make us increasingly susceptible to the future of data-driven decision-making, to the benefit of an emerging Big Data industry and at the expense of our privacy and reputation.

Jonathan Obar, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at York University. He also serves as a Research Fellow with the Quello Center at Michigan State University.

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W. (1976).  Introduction to the sociology of music (E.B. Ashton, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lippmann, W. (1922; 1997). Public opinion. New York, NY: Free Press.

Marcuse, H. (1964; 1991). One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Obar, J. A. (2015). Big Data and The Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the fallacy of data privacy self-management. Big Data & Society, 2(2), 1-16.

Obar, J. A., & Oeldorf-Hirsch, A. (2018a). The biggest lie on the internet: Ignoring the privacy policies and terms of service policies of social networking services. Information, Communication and Society.

Obar, J. A. & Oeldorf-Hirsch, A. (2018b). The clickwrap: A political economic mechanism for manufacturing consent on social media. Social Media + Society, July-September 2018, pp. 1-14.

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