Consent Theater

Some of privacy’s thorniest questions

Cory Doctorow
Published in
10 min readMay 21, 2021


The torso and hands of a zoot-suited con-artist playing a shell game; behind his body is a Matrix-style waterfall of green characters on a black background. The pea in the shell-game is the eye of HAL9000 from 2001. Image: Cryteria (modified) CC BY:

Just say that we “fix” Facebook, making it possible for you to take your data and go to a rival service, one that respects your privacy, pays its taxes, and isn’t bent on enclosing all digital spaces into its pervasive surveillance walled garden.

It’s an idyllic vision, but our problems are just getting started.

When you take a Facebook post with you to a new platform, do you get to take other peoples’ comments, too? On the one hand, it sure feels like “things people said to me about my stuff” is part of “my data,” but at the same time, “things I said to other people about their stuff” is also “my data.” Do you need to get all your friends’ consent before you can take their comments? What if they’ve left Facebook already? What if they’re dead? What if the comment you want to take with you is from your enemy, who left a comment so exquisitely stupid that you want to make sure it’s preserved for all eternity? Do you need your enemy’s permission to preserve a copy of their insults?

These aren’t just good, chewy questions for privacy advocates — questions smart people have been pondering for a long time — they’re also fast becoming a favored talking point of Big Tech, its shills, simps, and lobbyists.

“You can’t make us give people their own data back,” Big Tech says, “because it’s not their data! It’s data whose title is so entangled that we alone are entitled to control it.”

That’s an awfully convenient argument. But it raises an inconvenient question: If this data is so gnarly that no one can hope to untangle it, how did Big Tech come to take possession of it in the first place?

Big Tech has an answer, of course: You agreed.

Everyone agreed! Everyone clicked “I agree.” Everyone saw the notice that said, “By using this service, you agree… .” Everyone tore into the box that said, “By breaking this seal, you agree… .”

You agreed.

Obviously, that’s not how “agreement” works. I can prove it. For more than a decade, every email I’ve sent has ended with this:

READ CAREFULLY. By reading this email, you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising…