Meaningful Consent
in the Digital Economy

Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy (MCDE) is an EPSRC-funded research project that is examining issues related to giving and obtaining user consent online.

MCDE is based at the University of Southampton, with industry and academic partners from across the world.

REPORT: Building a Consentful Economy

The draft report from our recent workshop is now available, and open for comments. Find out about the five pillars of a consentful digital economy, and key developments in each of the major areas.

Read more about Building a Consentful Economy

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Despite being asked to "agree" constantly to terms of service, we do not currently have "meaningful consent." It is unclear whether having simple and meaningful consent mechanisms would change business fundamentally or enhance new kinds of economics around personal data sharing. Since consent is deemed necessary and part of a social contract for fairness, however, without meaningful consent, that social contract is effectively broken and the best intent of our laws undermined.

Our research challenges to address this gap are interdisciplinary: meaningful consent has implications for transforming current digital economy data practices; change will require potentially new business models, and certainly new forms of interaction to highlight policy without over burdening citizens as we go about our business. We have set out a vision to achieve an understanding of meaningful consent through a combination of interdisciplinary expert and citizen activities to deliver useful policy, business and technology guidelines.


Consent increasingly underpins our digital activities - it underpins the legal contracts we “agree” to when using Social Networking Services and is an important concept in the new European Data Protection regulations.

But often the consent we give is meaningless! We tick the box without knowing what it means, or click the button just to get rid of the message. This poses problems for individuals who aren't aware of their rights and obligations, and for organisations that rely on this meaningless consent as a legal protection.

Psychological "shortcuts" like decision fatigue or habituation, and user aversion to "irrelevant" or incomprehensible legal information pose challenges. How do we obtain meaningful consent from digital citizens without overwhelming them? If an organisation deliberately makes it easy to “consent” without reading the terms and conditions, should they be able to rely on that "consent" in a court of law?

This issue cuts right across the digital economy, and will require input from law, psychology, computer science, economics and numerous other disciplines.

At the workshop, we'll explore what meaningful consent means and what lessons the Digital Economy can draw upon when defining consent in the digital world.

Big Issues

1. What is meaningful consent?

What is necessary in order for consent to be “meaningful”. Does “by opening this package you consent to the terms contained within” cut it, or are there fundamental prerequisites? We’d especially like to hear from people about the legal aspects of consent.

2. When Does consent matter?

Consent is relied upon in many scenarios - It allows a medical professional to conduct a procedure without fearing an allegation of assault, it is fundamental to our idea of democracy in which a population consents to being governed. When do scenarios require meaningful consent, and are there different degrees of consent that are required?

3. What can consent in another domain teach us about consent in a digital world?

There are numerous situations where consent is considered important. We may consider a society as being policed by collective consent, and individual consent is hugely important in areas such as medical research. Where else is consent used and what lessons do these and other scenarios have for defining and applying meaningful consent in the digital world?

4. Regulation of the meaningless consent industry

What approaches can be taken to regulate online consent? What is the legal test for “meaningful” and should organisations that rely on consent be subject to "consent audits"?

5. Meaningful in the context of human behaviour

Numerous behavioural traits make meaningful consent problematic for human beings - especially those in a hurry. What support can we give to individuals to make their consent mean something and does failure to engage really reveal that individuals "don't care"?

For news and updates, follow the Meaningful Consent Blog

Please share with anyone who you think might be interested in contributing to this research!


Prof mc schraefel (PI)
Dr Enrico Gerding

EPSRC Grant EP/K039989/1

RCUK Digital Economy Project University of Southampton