Feature plugin discussion: a consent and logging mechanism for user privacy

As part of the #core-privacy team’s 2019 roadmap, the team has begun a discussion on the possibility of creating a consent and logging mechanism, most likely as a feature plugin. This is a working document to assemble our thoughts on what the initiative would involve; this document is not the formal proposal.

We welcome all thoughts on this document, which you are welcome to leave as comments on this post, or share with us directly in the #core-privacy channel on Making WordPress Slack.

What is in scope?

Our roadmap notes

Consent capture refers to creating a means for users to express their consent to data capture and usage, and to change their opt-in or opt-out status at any time, through easily accessible means such as front-end user settings or account information areas.

Consent logging refers to creating a means for administrators to collect a history of how users have opted in or out of various means of processing their data across core, themes, and plugins, to view the current status of that consent, and to make that history (and present state) available to users.

A standard way for WordPress core, plugins, and themes to obtain consent from users should be established to provide a consistent and stable experience for administrators, developers, and users of all kinds.

This initiative will likely require long term research, especially since it will be heavily influenced by pending regulations, such as the ePrivacy Regulation revamp, as well as user testing to ensure a positive experience for all while preventing “consent fatigue” or dark patterns. 

Existing consent and logging projects, such as Joomla’s consent system, will be studied and emulated (where possible) for both functionality as well as potential applicability as a plugin rather than a core feature.

Work on consent and logging is a considerable opportunity, and a challenge, for frontend and UX design. Thought should be given to how users are prompted for consent, how and where they change consent, and how this experience could be consistent across WordPress sites regardless of plugins or themes. Creating an open source pattern library of designs for consent and choice while collaborating with other projects and organizations is advisable. Some existing pattern libraries have been developed for IAPP (International Association of Privacy Professionals) and by IF London, working with Open Rights Group (whom Automattic sponsors).

Although this work is independent of any specific regulation or law, it should be done with mindfulness of the new privacy laws coming into play in early 2020. Making a “head start” will allow an effective solution to be deployed well in advance of the eventual compliance deadlines.

While there are a range of privately produced plugins available in the repository to deal with user consent and logging, no work has been done to date evaluating these issues from a core perspective. We also know that many administrators have deployed these solutions without really verifying that they are useful, effective, or meet the regulatory compliance requirements applicable to them. Additionally, we know that everyone – users and administrators alike – will be fully aware of the obtrusive, confusing, and almost entirely incorrect cookie and consent windows which appeared across the web as a result of a misunderstanding of GDPR’s requirements. Where these are based in plugins, they can occasionally do more harm than good.

Creating a core-centred consent and logging mechanism, as a feature plugin, presents an opportunity for the project to make a positive impact across all these areas. It will empower administrators within the ecosystem to better comply with privacy-related requirements, while contributing to a better standard of protecting user privacy across the open web.

Is this a legal thing?

As a team, we work from the perspective of placing user privacy first and foremost, regardless of any particular legal compliance obligation, or indeed, any lack of one.

This mechanism would look ahead to the upcoming consent and compliance requirements of CCPA (US, January 2020) and the ePrivacy Regulation overhaul (Europe, spring 2020), while also looking back at GDPR. Recent developments including updated guidance on GDPR cookie consent from the data protection regulators in the UK and France, as well as Nevada’s data rights law taking effect on October 1, have brought forward the need for the mechanism.

That being said, this feature plugin would not be built specifically as a legal compliance package, as our V1 GDPR tools were, nor will it be depicted as a compliance solution. Indeed, a responsible approach to user privacy will mean having conversations along the lines of “well, X law says users do not have to be prompted to grant consent for Y thing, but should we give them that option and build that functionality regardless?” Working from this proactive user-centric approach, rather than taking a reactive legal compliance view, will help to future-proof the work and, perhaps, continue to protect users who may find that their legal privacy rights are being stripped back.

How to build effective user controls

The core-privacy team draws on previously produced research, studies, and documents on best privacy practice. For user controls, the definitive source is: A Roadmap to Enhancing User Control via Privacy Dashboards (pdf), a study by the Privacy Bridges Project at the University of Amsterdam.

This diagram within the report explains the elements of a good consent and logging mechanism: 

Diagram of the elements in a user control mechanism: agency (users), architecture (technology and design), attitude (providers and platforms), and authority (privacy regulators).

The mechanism must provide users with the agency to exercise true and meaningful control over their personal privacy; it must be built on an architecture that has already enabled optimal user privacy by default; and it must be used to its fullest extent, by site administrators, from an attitude of responsibility and respect to users. A fourth element is authority, the interplay of legal obligations to user privacy; this sits alongside, rather than within, the main mix, as not all countries and systems have privacy laws in place. Users who do not have privacy regulations or safeguards protecting them therefore rely on agency, architecture, and attitude even more.

The report collated best practice advice on consent mechanisms (dashboards) offered by UK, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, US (the FTC), and EU data protection bodies, and this list offers us quite a bit of food for thought:

Accessible

  • Make the consent dashboard easily accessible for all users (for example, linking from the first screen);
  • Make the consent dashboard available to authenticated users, but also incorporate tools for passive and unauthenticated users, where their personal data is collected and used;
  • Link to this consent dashboard in the privacy policy of partner websites or third parties receiving personal data;
  • (We would add here that “accessible” should also mean the WordPress sense of a11y.)

Comprehensive

  • The consent dashboard should be comprehensive to manage all services and privacy settings in one place;
  • Manage not only the processing, but also the collection of their personal data; and
  • Allow the exercise of data subject rights, e.g., access to copies of personal data (linking to our existing data export and erasure tools).

Default-settings

  • Default-settings have to comply with the applicable law (also including regional variations);
  • Default-settings to be specific to each product/service with privacy-friendly defaults, and
  • A feature to ‘restore to default settings’ could also be added.

Granularity

  • Provide granular controls and upfront permissions, as well as giving the user ongoing control over their consent;
  • Provide information and control over which third parties receive personal data; and 
  • Offer a Do Not Track (DNT) mechanism that allow consumers to choose to prevent tracking by ad networks or other third parties.

Usability

  • The consent dashboard should be easy and straightforward to use;
  • Create a clear user interface that works to convey messages and draw attention;
  • Use design elements such as graphics, colours and layers to create hierarchies and user action;
  • It should be as easy to revoke consent as it was to provide it;
  • Ensure that users have a way to modify their information, have control of any tracking and delete their profile entirely if they wish;
  • Avoid making the dashboard unwieldy or too complex; and
  • Avoid dark patterns and any deceptive UX which compromises user privacy.

Information and transparency

  • Present information about the collection and use of personal data in an open, fair, and comprehensive way (as with our existing privacy notice tool); and
  • Instead of just using an on/off button, explain the consequences of making a choice to provide data so users can make an informed decision.

Support from other projects

As part of our participation in the cross-CMS privacy working group, we would be working closely with Joomla’s equivalent of the core-privacy team, which has already launched a consent management mechanism. They have offered to support us with practical advice and assistance. We also have support from the privacy initiative at Drupal, which has a consent and logging mechanism within a GDPR module (not in Core); Umbraco is looking to all three projects’ work to hopefully follow.

Timescale

We have the benefit (right now) of a few months of leadup time, and our previous work together as a team means we have a good sense of how we work as a unit. What that means is that unlike our V1 GDPR work, we have a bit of breathing space to plan, iterate, design, test, and reflect.

That being said, CCPA’s deadline is 1/1/20, and its requirements are clearly defined. It may be practical to look at a V1 launch of the plugin with the functionality and options required for GDPR and CCPA, and then iterate for a V2 update containing the functionality required for the ePrivacy Regulation revamp; by that time we will know what its requirements will be.

It would therefore be logical – and more than a bit fun – to aim to build something for Rian Kinney to be able to show during her CCPA talk at WordCamp US (1-3 November); it would be a natural fit for a team table at WCUS contributor day as well.

What we will need

Our work on a consent and logging mechanism will need participation and expertise from a range of contributors:

Developers who can create the functionality needed to hook a range of consents and data rights into a single dashboard. As consent and logging requirements impact larger and enterprise clients at scale, we would love to see participation from agencies and teams working at this level in particular;

Designers and UX specialists who can integrate existing design research from CNIL, IAPP (member-only content available in Slack), and IF, as well as user testing, to make the back end interface simple and attractive, while making any front-end interfaces both effective and within healthy compliance; 

Policy experts who can advise on upcoming legal and regulatory changes which will impact what functionality might need to be built in (I handle this for Europe, @riankinney handles this for the US, and we’d love to expand our policy knowledge base with experts from other regions);

Project managers who can keep a complex, multidisciplinary initiative like this on task; and finally;

Conference speakers from the team who can speak about the initiative, and our work in general, at future WordCamps.

It should be noted that no members of the core-privacy team are funded or sponsored to contribute to privacy in WordPress, so we will need to be very realistic about what we will be able to accomplish within the time availability that we have; or indeed, if an initiative of this scope will be possible on a purely voluntary basis.

Next steps

Please join us in our #core-privacy office hours at 1900 UTC on Wednesdays to discuss this, or any of the other activities of the team’s work.

#privacy