Is informed consent practical or even possible within a social media environment?

Published February 2017 by Leanne Millar BSc


This research analyses informed consent from a HCI perspective. Through a narrative approach the paper provides statistical evidence that informed consent in a social media environment is certainly impractical and improbable but further research would be needed to ascertain whether it is truly impossible.


Informed consent is a complex subject with many valid contrasting opinions. In their paper ‘Five Provocations for Ethical HCI Research’ (Brown, et al., 2016) argue that their needs to be more institutional responsibility and less legalistic beurocracy within ethical HCI research. A key aspect of this “legalistic beurocracy” is informed consent. Informed consent within HCI is consenting under full understanding by the participant of the full extent and consequences of their participation within a research study or HCI experiment. The need for informed consent arose from what are now considered to be unethical practices of researchers within the early to mid-20th century and before. (PHGF Foundation, 2008). This research aims to answer the question “Is informed consent practical or even possible within a social media environment?”


Per (ACM | Association for Computing Machinery, 1992) “Computing and communication technology enables the collection and exchange of personal information on a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization”. It is improbable in this technological era to walk down the street without seeing somebody using a mobile device which has internet access. “As of the third quarter of 2016, Facebook had 1.79 billion monthly active users.” (The Statistics Portal, 2016). Out of that 1.79 billion only 27% of people will read the terms and conditions. (Glancy, 2014). (Facebook, 2016) “encourage you to read the Data Policy, and to use it to help you make informed decisions”. The Data Policy informs readers that Facebook collect and use virtually every piece of data you upload to the site and share this data with anyone they see fit. (Facebook, 2016). It could be argued that Facebook have done due diligence in informing their service users by providing them with an interactive book of their policies, procedures, terms, and conditions. However, if like (Glancy, 2014) states that only 27% of people are reading these terms and conditions, are those uninformed automatic (AGREE) clickers, myself included, really consenting? In addition, how does Facebook know for certain that any of the people agreeing have the mental capacity to make that informed or uninformed consent? It can be safely stated that unless every person who interacts with a Facebook account relays their full understanding of Facebook’s terms and conditions, Facebook have no possible way of knowing whether its users have given their consent being fully understanding of the full extent and consequences of their participation using Facebook software.


The law states that “for consent to be valid it must be informed consent. For this to be the case it must be given voluntarily (with no coercion or deceit), given by an individual who has capacity, given by an individual who has been fully informed about the issue.” (Ministry of Ethics, 2014). Given these legal requirements it could be argued that under the latest findings from (Glancy, 2014), Facebook are in fact breaking UK legislation by not ensuring that its users are agreeing to their contracts with full understanding and the capacity to make an informed decision. Would Facebooks terms and conditions therefor be a legally binding (admissible) document and if not are they then breaking confidentiality laws by releasing people’s data without prior written consent? Whilst this would be an interesting line of future enquiry it is currently beyond the scope of this research. The ACM have a special interest group known as SIGCAS which address the ethical and social consequences of widespread computer usage. Their code of ethics is a standardised code of practice for computer professionals from both industry and academia, including psychologists, sociologists, and ethicists. ACM frequently collaborate with other bodies engaged in other related work, such as USACM, SIGITE and SIGCSE. (SIGCAS, 2016). Under the guidelines on informed consent by the ACM “It is the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals. This includes taking precautions to ensure the accuracy of data, as well as protecting it from unauthorized access or accidental disclosure to inappropriate individuals.” (ACM | Association for Computing Machinery, 1992). To conclude, realistically, with 1.7bn users worldwide, and only 12,691 staff members, it is unrealistic for a social media site such as Facebook to ensure the accuracy of its sites data, particularly when this content is user generated by the public. (The Statistics Portal, 2016). 5 ETHICS TOOLS There are several tools which have been provided through publication to assist researchers in developing good ethical practice. The CheCK Tool adds a new layer to the standardised ethical requirements as laid out by The University of Central Lancashire that of an ethical requirement to do “more than the minimum.” The CheCK Tool highlights the need to consider social responsibility as an ethical principle. (Read, et al., 2013) In addition to providing an extra layer of ethical obligations the CheCK Tool also provides a more honest and open approach to HCI discussing the “real” justifications against the “excuse” ones. (Read, 2015) The CheCK Tool is split into two parts - CheCK one motivates honesty - CheCK two motivates clarity in explanatory processes. (Read, et al., 2013) As the CheCK tool is a relatively young concept there has been little research into its use. This highlights an area where further research would be a significant scientific contribution. Other tools include the ABCD framework by (Read, et al., 2013), which is a tool that enables ethical participatory research when working with children. “This framework covers A – Agreement and consent; B – Behaviour of the research team towards the activities; C - Classroom experience in participatory sessions and D – Dissemination of the work.” Although the topics of the ABCD framework are covered under University standard ethical procedures the ABCD framework assists in helping the researcher identify exactly how the children are being “used” within studies. The BCS (The British Computer Society) Conference on HCI (Human Computer Interaction) is an annual conference on people and computers. A different British University host each conference, in 2016 on its 30th anniversary this was Bournemouth. BUCHI and Bournemouth University, 2016). In 2010 The British Computer Society released a paper which highlighted an ethical assessment tool named DIODE. DIODE was designed to use a practical meta-methodology to “assist diverse organisations and individuals conduct ethical assessments of new and emerging technologies.” (The British Computer Society, 2010).


This preliminary piece of research into ethics explains what is meant by informed consent and addresses both its practicality and whether it is even possible within a social media setting. Statistically this research proves that it is certainly improbable if not impossible to fully ascertain 1.7 billion users full understanding and mental capacity to do so, especially with under 13,000 staff members available to check this. Tools such as CheCK, DIODE, and The ABCD Framework whilst providing excellent assistance in conducting ethical research would be ineffective in ensuring informed consent of standardised terms and conditions in large usage environments such as Facebook. Therefor this paper concludes that informed consent within a social media environment is certainly impractical and improbable but further research would be needed to ascertain whether it is truly impossible.


ACM | Association for Computing Machinery, 1992. ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. [Online] Available at: acm-code-of-ethics-and-professionalconduct [Accessed 07 11 2016].

Brown, B., Weilenman, A., McMillan, D. & Lampinen, A., 2016. Five Provocations for Ethical HCI Research. Thinking Critically #chi4good CHI, pp. 852-861.

BUCHI and Bournemouth University, 2016. HCI 2016 Fusion by The British Computer Society | The 30th Annual Conference. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 November 2016]. Facebook, 2016. Data Policy. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 24 November 2016]. Facebook, 2016. Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 24 November 2016]. Glancy, R., 2014. Will you read this article about terms and conditions? You really should do. [Online]Available at: e/2014/apr/24/terms-and-conditions-onlinesmall-print-information [Accessed 24 November 2016]. Ministry of Ethics, 2014. Main principles of consent. [Online]Available at: [Accessed 25 November 2016]. PHGF Foundation, 2008. Informed Consent - History of Informed Consent, London: PHGF Foundation. Read, J. C., 2015. Children as Participants in Design and Evaluation. The Forum for Evaluation and Usability, pp. 64-66.

Read, J. C., Gregory, P., Sim, G. & Horton, M., 2013. Working ethically in participatory research with children. | The possibilities of ethical ICT. Denmark, De Montfort University, pp. 400-404. Read, J. C. et al., 2013. CHECk: A Tool to Inform and Encourage Ethical Practice in Participatory Design with Children. Paris, France, CHI 2013 Extended Abstracts. SIGCAS, 2016. Welcome to ACM SIGCAS. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 November 2016].

The British Computer Society, 2010. Ethical assessment of new technologies - A metamethodology. [Online] Available at: pdf [Accessed 25 November 2016]. The Statistics Portal, 2016. Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 3rd quarter 2016 (in millions). [Online] Available at: umber-of-monthly-active-facebook-usersworldwide/ [Accessed 24 November 2016].

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