Opinion: We Need to Change Our Definition of Consent

By Akhil Durvasula

Merriam-Webster defines consent as “compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another.” Consent appears to be a super easy word to define—it simply means interacting with a person under their guidelines. For example, not taking pictures or touching someone unless they express consent. Although the definition of consent could be self-explanatory, it is extremely complicated because of how the definition differs among cultures and societies, and changing the U.S’s definition of consent is essential to the defeat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The primary definition of consent in Western cultures and nations is the one typically found in dictionaries. In countries such as the U.S and Germany, there is an inherent right that the government cannot spy on you. It is written in law that the government cannot spy on its citizens without their consent. This type of spying is prohibited in both the digital and real-world, where the government is not allowed to spy on a citizen's home or track citizens without their consent.

In the digital world, the government is not allowed to spy on a citizen’s browsing history, financial transactions, or private texts. This version of consent also plays into a Western society's morals and the “social contract”. Most people in Western societies agree that it is morally wrong for someone to spy on another person without their consent. The government has the technological power to spy on citizens, especially through digital means, but there is a social contract between the government and the citizens in which the government cannot spy on the citizen.

This type of consent has played a role in the U.S’s appalling response to COVID-19. Instead of tracking people’s location to control the spread, the U.S government and the U.S. people decided against that because it goes against their moral values on consent.

Another main definition is a type of consent called “protectionist consent”. This type of consent is seen more in Asian countries like South Korea and India. In these countries and cultures, the government is allowed to spy on citizens as long as it is for protecting citizens. The Western world despises protectionist consent because spying on citizens for protection is vague and the government could use it for corruption or selling to businesses. On the other hand, many people in Asian countries believe it is morally right for the government to spy on them for protectionist reasons. Furthermore, they still believe that it is morally wrong for a foreign power, a business, or another person to spy on them. There is a social contract between the citizens and the government on spying because the citizens hold the government accountable to only spy on them for protectionist reasons.

The use of protectionist consent has been used in the COVID-19 crisis — successfully employed in South Korean to defeat the virus. During the early months of the outbreak, South Korea had seen one of the most substantial bursts of cases. Because of the social contract of protectionist consent, citizens granted the government the ability to track their location because it would be extremely valuable in defeating the virus. As a result of protectionist consent, South Korea is arguably the country that dealt with the virus the best.

Ultimately, consent is defined by two distinct demographics. People living in the West believe that no one has the consent to spy on them, even if it is for the greater good. On the other hand, people in the East believe that only the government has the right to spy on them for protectionist reasons. However, there has been a new shift of consent. Many governments in the West have started to move towards protectionist consent due to the influx of Asian apps such as TikTok in the Western Countries. Citizens of these countries have started to despise the government’s shift towards this type of consent because it violates their natural rights. Now the world is at a crossroads on whether the only type of consent is protectionist, or not.