Consent Matters

Two brown-skinned hands side by, palms open. One has "yes" written on it. One has "no" written on it.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
July 30, 2021
Robin Eastman

How we think about autonomy, choice, and freedom at our startup

With the Me Too movement (thank you Tarana J. Burke!), consent issues are rising in public awareness. This is such important progress. Still, when you talk about consent, people tend to assume you’re talking about sex. Consent is vital for sex and sexuality, but it’s also important in all contexts.

I want consent over what I eat, what I watch, how I spend my time. I want my autonomy respected at work, when I’m playing sports, when I’m grocery shopping, when I’m visiting my family.

“Freedom from” is as important a concept as “freedom to.” I don’t want to be stuck in a room with someone’s perfume that will give me a migraine. Some days, I want nothing more than to listen to someone tell me their current challenges and give the sympathy and advice that’s called for. But other days, I simply don’t have the mental and emotional capacity for that. I love hugs! But I want hugs to be offered, not demanded, even from those I love dearly.

“I agree” and beyond

The place you most often see “consent” in relation to technology is when you have to click to “I agree” to the terms of service (ToS). This always feels coercive, since you have to click to use the product and you are often asserting you have read the ToS, when people very rarely do.

When writing our ToS, we thought about this, but it barely scratches the surface of how we view consent.

When we think about consent in our startup, we aren’t thinking about it as one yes or no question, we are thinking about it as one of the priorities we consider every time we make a decision: How does this impact consent? Whose consent does it impact?

Versatackle is a platform for online events. We have built our platform from the ground up. This means a ton of decisions that have implications for consent.

Some decisions are pretty easy: are we going to sell user info? (nope!) Some decisions are complicated: We want to be accessible, and also promote consent and autonomy. When can the host act for people, and when does the host need to get active consent from the users? Can the host mute someone else? As of now, yes. Can the host un-mute someone else? As of now, no.

Priorities

Obviously consent isn’t like a feature or a to-do item, but we do need to know where it is in our priority list. People in the software field call these “non-functional requirements” or sometimes call them “ilities”, as in, accessibility, maintainability, scalability, reliability.

For our non-functional requirements, we often shorten our top priorities to Autonomy, Accessibility & Inclusion.

These three are umbrellas, we abbreviate them to help remind us of the big picture, and where our top priorities are.

And we also have a list of things that are less important, and others which are in the middle, which helps us make decisions consistently.

The middle of our list includes platform-independence, meaning people can use our product whether they’ve got a new or old computer, or a smartphone. Another thing in the middle of our list is making sure our providers and sub-vendors have good policies.

At the bottom of our list, you might be surprised to hear that we list security, sleekness, and having all features available at all times. We do care about security, like enough for reasonable privacy for regular conversations, but we aren’t building something for trade secrets or top-secret conversations. Mostly, we care about these elements for how they affect our top priorities. We need our platform to be secure enough to be inclusive, sleek enough to be accessible, and functional enough to provide autonomy.

Consent for our users

What we build has a big impact on people’s ability to exercise consent when they use our product. For example, does the user have the ability to independently leave or join a conversation, send a private message, mute a microphone, or pause a camera?

One big difference people notice between Versatackle and other platforms is that you join and leave chats or presentations by yourself; the host doesn’t click a button to move everybody into groups. We look at it as an autonomy and consent thing: if you go to a conference in person, the organizer doesn’t force everyone to go into the room for a workshop, or into and out of small groups. People are responsible for that themselves, so if you’re having a great conversation in the hallway, or you need two more minutes of alone time before you go into a big group of people again, you can do that with in-person events, and we let people do that on our platform. There are trade-offs for this. It can be frustrating for hosts who are used to having more control over their events. We’ve also had users flag this as an accessibility issue, and we haven’t solved that problem yet.

Each user can mute or un-mute their own microphone, of course. We expect hosts are responsible for dealing with issues in their events, so it makes sense for a host to be able to mute people; this can help if someone needs assistance, has excessive background noise, or is acting inappropriately.

We don’t allow a host to un-mute a guest, though. We think it’s important for it to be consensual for a person to have their audio or video streaming out on the internet. We’re considering adding an option that would allow people to give the host permission to turn on and off their mic or camera, because that can actually make the site more accessible to more people.

Infrastructure and consent

We build our technology in house, but it uses external infrastructure to run on. We rely on servers, a networking provider for audio and video, and payment providers. Each of those companies have their own ToS and policies, and they affect the promises we make to our customers.

One simple example is a matter of privacy. A lot of systems and providers use external analytics providers. Some of them also track users and sell the data to marketing companies. Since we have committed to not selling customer data, we think it’s important that the providers we use also won’t be selling data about our customers. So we go to the trouble of reading all the terms and conditions for each of our infrastructure providers, to make sure there’s nothing in there that goes against our values.

Another example, if we want to let people make recordings of a chat, the recording gets made on a media server connected to the audio/visual streams. I’d like us to promise our customers that, when they tell us to delete those recordings, we delete them. But depending on the terms and policies of the company that provides the media servers and A/V networking, they may have a policy of keeping the recordings for 30 days.

Consent as an Employer

Versatackle doesn’t have a big team. The two co-founders are most of Versatackle. We do have people we’ve hired part time and people we’ve brought in for projects. We also hope to grow our team. When we do, we want it to be intentional. We want to be an employer people love working for.

One of the major pillars of consent relates to power. Can you have real consent with power imbalances? Our company does have a hierarchy, which means that power isn’t distributed equally. How do we reduce the impact of power imbalances within our company?

Most importantly: we believe in paying people fairly and being very transparent about pay. Our economy has a lot of power imbalances. Many of those take advantage of workers and force people to volunteer time in order to build a resume. We don’t want to be part of that. At the same time, money is very tight. One of our colleagues brought up the concept of “Fair energetic exchange.” We are trying to ensure our employees/contractors are getting as much value as they put in. We are also building a compensation philosophy that is not based on undervaluing work that is associated with women/gender minorities and/or BIPOC folks. That means a commitment to pay less than market rate for some jobs (tech roles) and more than market rate for others (office management/HR). A fair energetic exchange means that for roles where employees could make more money elsewhere, we are committed to giving them support they won’t be able to count on at other companies (more inclusion, less toxic hierarchy, more autonomy and flexibility).

During the hiring process, we try to minimize interviews. We get enough info to know if the potential employees meets our needs and doesn’t have deal-breakers. Then we pay them to do a short term project. This means we all get value as we assess working with each other.

Once we have someone on the team, maintaining consent is very important to us. Here are some of the ways we try to do that:

When someone raises a concern, we take it seriously and try to understand and treat the underlying cause. Both of us, prior to starting Versatackle, experienced (repeatedly) struggling to bring up concerns at workplaces, and having them downplayed. The social cost of raising a concern at work means that you tend to only raise things that are a big deal, and then they get minimized. We don’t want to do this. Instead, we try to treat each issue like it could be the tip of an iceberg.

We also try to “yes and” each other. For example, I wrote a piece about our values as a company. I used the phrase “preferred pronouns.” Julian told me that they understand if we need to use that language now, while people are learning, but that it was better and more accurate just to say “pronouns.” I said, yes, let’s absolutely use the better language. And is there any way we can make our language more inclusive? This made me realize how many times I’ve brought up a way to make language more inclusive in my career and had to justify, reason, and prove why the change was important. It’s exhausting. It’s not affirming. Me proving my expertise and lived experience is NOT consent to enter into a debate. If you want more of something, you have to reward it, not punish it. Since we want a workplace that does better with inclusion feedback, that’s what we are working to build. I don’t want to pretend we do this perfectly, but we do consciously invest in it and do a deep dive into what went wrong when we mess up.

Giving and receiving trust is crucial. We don’t participate in the infantilization of employees. For example, we don’t ask for a justification for why anyone needs time off. If an employee needs time, they are assumed to be the best judge of that. We ask how we can support instead. We are practicing now, while we are small, so that we’re better prepared to scale that respect as we grow.

For our employee social media policy, we say that we encourage employees/colleagues to post whatever they think is appropriate about our company. (Except personal info and financial details.) It is fine to criticize us, and do it publicly. We hope we don’t give them reason to, of course, but there are plenty of ways we aren’t perfect and it is completely fine to talk about those. If we are the kind of company we aspire to be, we imagine our team will let us know about problems before posting about them online — but it’s our job to be that kind of company, and not our employees’ jobs to act like we are, even if we aren’t.

We try to be conscious about our hierarchy. I hate hierarchy, so it’s very tempting to say we don’t have one, but that’s not honest. Julian and I own the company 50/50, so we are the final voice in decisions. Pretending otherwise doesn’t remove hierarchy, it simply adds a layer of obfuscation. That would penalize people who don’t have the same assumptions and culture that we do. Instead, we try to be intentional about our hierarchy so employees have as clear a map as possible of how to navigate it.

Consent is a process

Our thinking and writing about consent is a process and a priority, not a policy. We want you to understand how and why we are thinking about consent as we go. There are likely things that will change in the future. The more time you spend thinking about consent, the more you understand that it is messy, complicated, and there is no right way to do it perfectly. The practice still matters. Thinking about consent helps us build spaces where people can have the psychological safety needed to share ideas, build communities, and create. Ultimately, that’s what Versatackle is all about.

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