Silence Isn't Consent

I was in one of those interminably dull video-conferences a few weeks ago. The presenter was pitching their grand vision of what our next steps should be.

"So!" They said, "Any comments before we launch?"

No one said anything.

After half a minute the presenter said "As there are no objections, we'll proceed. Silence is consent."

At that phrase, my whole body did an involuntary spasm which I'm sure was caught on camera.

I know what they meant and, it some contexts, it's an understandable shortcut. It's common in a wedding ceremony to hear some form of "speak now or forever hold your peace".

But we should, in all our endeavours, be looking for enthusiastic consent. That means a cheerful, resounding, unambiguous, delighted "yes".

Or, as some people prefer to describe it, authentic consent. We want people to agree to our proposals - even if it is only transactional. They get something, we get something. Everyone is happy.

Anyway, on to AI bots.

Last week, my site started getting hammered by a rather aggressive bot which was downloading all my images and placing considerable strain on my server. I tracked down the open source project which was responsible for developing the tool. It was designed to bulk download images - regardless of copyright status - and use them for AI training.

In its README, it said that if I wanted to opt-out of having this particular tool scrape my images, I had to add some non-standard headers to my site. There was no way to opt-in to the bot.

It seems that every few years we have to have the same argument. Someone releases a tool on the Internet and claims that, if you don't want to participate, you must explicitly opt-out.

It isn't hard to see why that's an obnoxious idea. Thousands of tools are released every day. Am I expected to play whack-a-mole and shut down every new one that appears? That is a perverse way to expect people to behave. These bots cost people time and money without offering any tangible benefit.

By analogy, I can't suddenly declare that everyone online has to pay me £5 - oh, you don't want to? Sorry, you should have opted-out last month. That'll be a fiver, please.

Informed consent is key! It is untenable and unethical to expect people to acquiesce to your demands without even giving them the courtesy of informing them of your intentions. Those of a literary persuasion will remember Adams' Parable of The Leopard.

Speaking of ethics - this gets more tangled. I told the bot-creator that I thought their tool should be opt-in. They said that was "unethical". I didn't understand that point - consent is ethical - but their response baffled me.

Letting a small minority prevent the large majority from sharing their images and from having the benefit of last gen AI tool would definitely be unethical yes.
Consent is obviously not unethical. You can give your consent for anything if you wish.
It seems you're trying to decide for million of other people without asking them for their consent.

Me asking for a tool to respect the consent of users is, apparently, an ethical crime against people who might benefit from whatever the tool could create in the future. That's some "For The Greater Good" shit!

Perhaps I shouldn't stop the trolley from running over the orphans because one of them might cause a traffic jam in the future...

In the UK, people are not compelled to donate their blood. Nor are we compelled to receive life-saving blood transfusions if we don't consent.

Different cultures have different ethics and one of the problems with the Internet is that we occasionally butt up against different norms of behaviour. But I think, in all cultures, you can't just start grabbing a person's stuff and then say "but you didn't explicitly say that I couldn't! Besides, it's for your own good!!"

Look - this has been a bit of a ramble - but we have to play nice with each other while we're here. Ripping off people's content because you hope that they will see the utility of what you build just isn't polite. If you think people will benefit from something, then you need to make the positive case to enable them to give their enthusiastic consent.

Consent is one of the bedrocks of ethics. And silence is most definitely not consent.

It isn't "effective altruism" if you have to force people to comply with you.

Further discussion on Vice / Motherboard and HackerNews.

Share this post on…

11 thoughts on “Silence Isn't Consent”

  1. said on

    @Edent in the Italian legal system there's a law called "silenzio-assenso" ( which was put in place to justify any inertia and inefficiency by the Public Administration.

    I often wonder, since it's become a deeply ingrained expression in the Italian language, how much of that concept had trickled into other situations in the country.
    English Translation of “silenzio assenso” | Collins Italian-English Dictionary

    Reply | Reply to original comment on
  2. said on

    @Edent You kind of switch gears in this post from affirmative consent in meetings (which is one topic - and I'd argue is unwieldy and not practical), and consent to scrape sites.

    The scraping issue is very thorny. Most people seem to think Internet Archive is a Good Thing(TM) - and they also practice saving sites without consent. But if it's done for other reasons it's a Bad Thing(TM).

    Maybe you think it's bad in both cases - but I've found generally people are inconsistent on this.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on
  3. @Edent I can see both sides of this, I'm not sure its as clear cut as you make out (hear me out on this one): When Google launched their search engine, its utility would have been greatly reduced if only websites that opted in were indexed (ok, so these days you'd probably be insane not to want your site indexed by Google, but not when they first started out). 1/

    Reply | Reply to original comment on
  4. @Edent What is important though, is being a good citizen. e.g. try to respect people's wishes WRT copyright, for example, don't hammer the server, etc. I can certainly remember that when MS originally launched Bing, it was buggy as hell and did create a denial of service for small web hosts. So a lot of people blocked it. The result is neither good for the websites, nor the tool itself. 2/

    Reply | Reply to original comment on
  5. Peter Cooper says:

    That "silence is consent" line is taught verbatim in numerous sales training courses as a form of soft close. As much as I actually respect a lot of sales techniques, that one is hugely outdated and inappropriate for most situations. "Better to ask forgiveness than permission" is a slightly more acceptable way to describe the intent nowadays, although that introduces its own problems.

  6. Merton Hale says:

    I agree completely - about the opt-in versus opt-out. I live in Belgium. This is where the EU can have a very beneficial effect. Can could pass an appropriate regulation - requiring opt-in.
    On a somewhat similar note: I appreciate website that have a one-button click to opt out of all cookies. Many sites make you go through the lengthy process of setting several different parameters. I'm sure they do this in the hopes that people will not bother with this hassle an just say OK. Would be nice to see the EU pass a regulation where the DEFAULT was "no cookies." If you wanted to send them cookies then you had to "select."
    Sorry for you guys in Britain since no longer in EU you would not benefit from these proposed regulation, and the chances of GB government getting around to doing this are, shall we say, slim.

  7. said on

    @Edent where I started work in the early 90s, each meeting room had a list of meeting rules, including 'silence is assent', and also 'in meetings everyone is equal'. In that context, and with diligent chairing 'silence is assent' was a really empowering principle. Sadly few offices I've worked in subsequently have taken this stuff seriously.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on

What are your reckons?

All comments are moderated and may not be published immediately. Your email address will not be published.Allowed HTML: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <p> <pre> <br> <img src="" alt="" title="" srcset="">