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Manufacturing Agreement

You might think I'm writing this to lecture you that you should read the terms of service (ToS) and privacy policy (PP) agreements of the online services you use. While you definitely should, that's not my point. I'm writing this to share my observation that not agreeing to the ToS and PP is often impractical. And for that reason, in cases where it is impractical to refuse, we shouldn't consider it agreement. Rather, it is illegitimate, manufactured agreement.


In order for this post to give a more balanced perspective, I'm first going to give online services their due, then users.


In Defense of Online Services

Users Sometimes Have Alternatives

First of all, not agreeing to the ToS and PP for online services is more practical than most people think. I've spent the past few years setting up my life in such a way that I don't have to agree to ToS and PP agreements when I don't want to. My job doesn't require it and my personal life doesn't demand it. While I understand that not everybody can or wants to set their life up like I have mine, the main reason I see people not avoiding ToS and PPs isn't because it's impractical. It's out of apathy and laziness.


If more people would read and try to reject ToS and PPs they disagree with, they would succeed. For instance, if you're a student and a class requires you to use Goolag[1] disservices, you need a Goolag account. You have to submit to extensive tracking across the web, selling of your data, and other nasty things. There are several ways around making an account though. Here's a few ideas listed in order of which you ought to try first:


1. Talk to the professor. Explain that you don't agree to Goolag's ToS and PP. If you explain your position respectfully, many professors will at least be sympathetic to the problem. They may have some advice or even modify the coursework so it doesn't require Goolag.

2. If it is not the professor's choice to use Goolag, talk to someone higher up about the problem.

3. Drop the class in favor of a different one that doesn't require a Goolag account.

4. Use alternative free software that does the same job.

5. If you're working in a group, have someone who already has a Goolag account use the disservices.


A coworker once told me "Everything is negotiable". So don't just give in the instant there's an obstacle. It's so easy to say "Well the professor said I have to use Goolag. Guess I have no choice!". But that's giving up before you've even tried. It's defeatist. Even when you aren't presented with the alternatives to signing a ToS and PP, oftentimes they exist. All you have to do ask for them. Ask and you shall receive.


ToS and PPs Are Needed

In defense of online services, ToS and PPs are necessary. There has to be a legal way to manage the expectations between an online service and its users. While businesses should be required to provide a version of the ToS and PP readable by non-lawyers, they can't be faulted for the official agreement being written in legalese. They have to cover their ass to prevent being sued. It's not their fault for creating a ToS and PP.


Summary

So that wraps up my apologizing for businesses. In summary, I've talked about how resisting evil ToS and PPs is more practical than most people think. I've given several examples of how to resist. I've pointed out that most people who are aware of the issue aren't even trying to say no. And finally, businesses have to write up these agreements. They don't have a choice.


Now it's time to give users their due.


In Defense of Users

Users Are Conditioned Not to Read ToS and PPs

The first and most obvious point is users are conditioned not to read these agreements. An experimental survey of 543 participants by university researchers Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch and Jonathan A. Obar confirmed what everybody already knew[2]: nobody reads the full ToS and PP. At best, they get skimmed.


It makes sense that they only get skimmed. Who has the time to read and understand them? When we're told to sign up to an online service by someone at school or work to complete an assignment, it's never presented as a choice. You're not allotted extra time to read the agreements you're expected to agree to. You're just expected hit accept.


At some point, the process of clicking the checkbox becomes so automated that you forget what it even means. You just see an empty checkbox waiting to be clicked representing...your ability to complete school or do your job. That brings up the main point I want to make in this post.


Not Signing the ToS/PP Can Be Impractical

Corporations have created an environment where not agreeing to their ToS and PPs is impractical. That is, you can't work a normal job to support yourself and family, can't go to school, can't meet new people, can't function in daily life without agreeing to their policies. And that's where not agreeing becomes impractical. Now let's look at some examples of that in the wild.


China's WeChat

WeChat, or as I call it, "WeShat" has taken over China. If you live in China, many businesses won't do business with you if you don't have WeShat. WeShat is how people talk to friends and family. It's how business is done. And if you meet someone on the street, they won't exchange emails, phone numbers, or business cards. It's WeShat all the way.


WeShat is so ingrained in Chinese society that not having it is impractical. And there are plenty of reasons not to want to use it. Just read its ToS[3] and PP[4]. Everything you do in the app from your payments to private chats, contacts, and location is collected and sent to Tencent. It's an unjust Chinese government backdoor into the private lives of Chinese citizens. No sane person should want such a dangerous app, given a choice.


That's just it though. There's really only a choice in theory. You can't function in society without it, so "choice" is merely an illusion. WeShat is a very clear cut case of user agreement being manufactured. While you could maybe find a way to manage without it, clearly that's not what Tencent nor the Chinese government intends for you.


Other Countries

I don't know of another example that is as extreme as China's WeShat. It's definitely a good topic for research. "How practical is it to get by without X app in Y country". I imagine you might have a difficult but not impossible time getting by without WhatsApp in India. Many countries all over the world rely on the infrastructure of American technology companies such as Facecrook, Goolag, and Micro$oft.


I was unable to complete my education out of refusal to agree to big tech's ToS and PPs. The sad truth of the matter is, in much of the world, it's totally impractical to get a job and go to school without signing your soul away to big tech. But avoiding the ToS and PPs won't only leave you economically disadvantaged, it'll leave you socially isolated too.


Social Activities

It's a basic human need to socialize with others. We are social animals. None of us is an island. But the most popular social media apps require you to agree to let them harvest your data. It's not so much that you can't avoid any particular app's ToS and PP. It's that all the apps that anyone actually uses have a ToS and PP requiring you to give up your data. The dreaded network effect[5] works for big tech and against everybody else.


Tech CEOs smugly respond "You don't have to agree to the ToS and PP. Just don't use our app.", but throwing the ToS and PP in user's faces is disingenuous. Maybe you don't have to agree to their social network's ToS and PP, but you practically have to agree to some social networking app's ToS and PP. Saying no to all big social networks, for some people, is just social suicide. Yet all the biggest social medias track users and do other nasty things that nobody should have to agree to.


So pick your poison. Will it be Birdshitter, Discord, Facecrook, Tinder, WeShat, or WhatsApp? You could use the fediverse[6] which isn't poison, but it has very few users compared to big tech surveillance platforms. If you're trying to meet people, you could also meet with people in real life. But then you're limited to the subset of locals who still go out in person to meet, which seems to be a shrinking demographic especially since the pandemic hit. The social direction the world seems to be going if it's not already there is give in to big tech or be a hermit. Why is the digital world like this?


Polyopolies Prevent Diverse ToS and PPs

Well the reason not agreeing to certain ToS or PPs is impractical is because corporations are allowed to grow too large. They become polyopolies too powerful to refuse. Governments should solve the manufactured agreement by creating a tax system which disincentivizes corporations becoming too big. With smaller corporations, there would be more competition. With more competition, users would have more options of which ToS and PPs they agree to.


Governments Lack Strong Consumer Privacy Laws

Another thing governments should do that attacks the heart of the problem is create laws which provide strong consumer privacy protections. The most objectionable sections of PPs of online services have to do with data collection. By creating strong consumer privacy laws, harmful PPs would become illegal and unenforceable.


Clearly laws like GDPR have failed to adequately protect citizens. The best way to protect citizens would be to enact a law preventing digital systems from collecting personal data about people in the first place[7]. If such a law were in effect, even if your agreement to the PP were manufactured, harm to your privacy would still be extremely limited.


Courts Treat Manufactured Agreement as Legitimate

Another problem is courts consider clickwrap agreements[8] legally binding even if refusal is impractical. Impractical meaning the user can't function in society without agreeing. For example, the user can't keep a job, get an education, socialize, and other basic things people should be able to do.


When the expensive corporate lawyer says "You didn't have to agree", this should be legally challengeable. If it can be proven in court that the user had no practical choice to click the button, the judge should treat the agreement as manufactured, not real legal assent. Of course it would still be up to the judge to decide what counts as "practical" and how far that extends. Obviously corporations still need a way to create legally binding ToS contracts, but "sign this or you can't function in life" can't be considered assent to the terms of the contract.


This may help redecentralize polyopolies since ToS and PP agreements protect service providing corporations. Corporations wouldn't want those agreements to fail to hold up in court due to the impracticality of refusing to sign them. This may also prevent corporate power from encroaching upon institutions owned by the state (E.g. public universities). It directly incentivizes corporations to ensure users have a real choice in accepting or not accepting.


Manufacturing Consent

Now that I've said everything I want to say about agreement to ToS and PPs in the context of online services, I want to end this post by tying it all together with Noam Chomsky's concept in his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. Specifically, I want to talk about how social media "services" are particularly dangerous.


What is Manufacturing Consent?

In this post I've used the term "manufactured agreement" referring to the agreement of the user. The user is made to feel like they have a choice because they can click a box or not. But sometimes there is no practical option not to click it. The term "manufacturing consent" on the other hand refers to the way that news is selected by its stakeholders. It means creating a system in which citizens will accept corporate-sponsored propaganda without questioning, distributed through the mass media.


How Social Media Manufactures Agreement and Consent

There is an extremely dangerous interplay between my idea of manufactured agreement and Chomsky's concept of manufactured consent. I'll explain.


Step 1

First, agreement to the ToS and PP of the social media services is manufactured. I've already talked about how that happens.


Step 2

Next, the services are created to be maximally addictive. Social media companies even hire psychologists to help make their platforms as addictive as possible, worse even than tobacco. So once you're on them, they're hijacking your brain to stay. You're hooked. Now the brainwashing can commence.


Step 3

Apply Chomsky's idea that the information you see is filtered by what the stakeholders want you to see. But with social media, it's even worse. When Chomsky first published his book Manufacturing Consent in 1988, it wasn't possible for the media to manipulate people in an individually targeted way. Today, all you have to do is throw some money at Cambridge Analytica and they'll manipulate an entire election for you through Facecrook by using algorithms to individually target users[9].


Now consider that half of Americans get their news from social media at least sometimes[10], according to Pew research. At this point, it's beginning to sound very dark. So the big question is "What can we as mere consumers do about it?". I have a few pieces of advice to finish off this post.


Advice to Consumers of News

Avoid Big Tech's Social Media Platforms

My first recommendation to avoid being manipulated, even if you're forced onto the platform by school or work, is never use those platforms to consume news. Don't look at news feeds. Don't give likes to any posts. Don't comment. Don't share. Interact minimally with the platform. Do the bare minimum to get by. Remember that all those platforms can be easily manipulated and controlled by those with money and you shouldn't trust them.


Curate the News You Consume

My second and final piece of advice to avoid being brainwashed by social media is to be picky about which news you do consume. Limit your news consumption. I recommend using an Atom/RSS feed reader, compiling your news from several independent, trusted sources. If you don't know what Atom/RSS is, check out my post about it[11]. Feed readers are easy to use and they give you full control over how much news you see, what news you see, and how it shows up.


As a side note, I'm not saying consuming partisan news from giant media companies like CNN or Faux News is all bad. It's good for finding out what the stakeholders want you to be focusing on. If you can tell the facts apart from the media spin on them, then you'll be fine. I'd still recommend an Atom/RSS feed reader though so that you have control over what you see. If you're just visiting CNN or Faux New's website, they control your browsing experience which is another way you can be manipulated. Just use Atom/RSS instead.


Conclusion

That's all I got for this one! Thanks to everyone who read this far. If reading this sparked any interesting ideas in your mind related to manufacturing consent or you thought of some examples I didn't mention, feel free to email me about it. My contact details are found on the about page[12].



1: Goolag

2: The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services

3: WeShat ToS

4: WeShat PP

5: Network Effect

6: Fediverse

7: What sort of laws would give us real privacy?

8: The Clicks That Bind: Ways Users "Agree" to Online Terms of Service

9: Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal

10: News Use Across Social Media Platforms in 2020

11: Atom and RSS

12: About Page



Unless otherwise noted, the writing found in this journal is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

© 2019-2021 Nicholas Johnson