For the past twenty years or so, digital writing studies (a sub-discipline in English studies) has attended to the conditions of the writing environment, e.g., methods along with political, social, and cultural values embedded in writing spaces. Additionally, disciplinary conversations have turned to the developing surveillance state in online spaces. For instance, how Facebook or Google tracks people online or how surveillance affects student engagement in learning management systems like Blackboard or Coursera.

Digital writing studies scholarship has attended to a range of complex conditions and issues connected with privacy and digital surveillance culture with issues of educator responsibility in protecting students from surveillance in course management systems (Beck, Blair, Grohowski, forthcoming; Hawisher & Selfe, 1991; Purdy, 2009; Janangelo, 1991; Zwagerman, 2008); the potential harm digital researchers may face when collecting data for scholarly projects (Hawkes, 2007); how government surveillance, tracking technologies, and data mining affect student writing practices (McKee, 2012); the affects data mining and surveillance has upon intellectual property and agency on the web (Reyman, 2013); the intersections of digital surveillance and big data to writing program administration and student identity formation in online spaces (Crow, 2012); the problems with lengthy website privacy policies (Vie, 2014a, 2014b); and the invisible digital identity computer algorithms create about people, and how those data points shape what people experience online (Beck, 2015).

At the same time as developments in digital writing studies, current trends in digital arts and humanities have focused upon digital methods for humanities-based initiatives, including but not limited to: text encoding, electronic editing, scholarly publication and communication, textual analysis, 3-D imaging, digital imaging and analysis, and data visualizations. Additionally, work in digital humanities has focused upon the history, philosophy, and criticism of digital culture and its impact upon everyday people. Since digital surveillance and privacy affects society, the practical implications cannot be ignored. This project will open new lines of research in digital arts and humanities by studying how people understand consent in an age of digital surveillance.

Although digital surveillance and privacy cultures has received increasing attention by writing studies scholars, no specific research has emerged to address how the public understands consent with privacy policy and terms of use statements online, along with how data tracking and surveillance operates. Thus, this proposed research project will extend existing scholarship in writing studies and across disciplines through a mixed methods quantitative and qualitative intervention study.

The purpose of Understanding Digital Consent in an Age of Corporate Surveillance is a pathmaking intervention study: intervening on public understanding of consent from website privacy policy and terms and conditions statements.


This proposed study will seed the discovery and pilot phases of multi-phasic research project. This includes drafting two peer-reviewed journal articles: 1) in the field of writing studies, and 2) in the field of communications. The target journals for the pilot data include College English (with a 8% acceptance rate) in writing studies, and Media, Culture, & Society (h5-index, 29) in communications. Publishing the results across these two disciplines will provide scholarly support for larger grant opportunities in the future with this topic area for digital humanities research.

Long reaching plans from the results include sharing the data through an open-source site for researchers; writing a trade publication article, e.g., Wired magazine, to capture the attention of Silicon Valley investors and/or software companies; and, writing peer-reviewed journal articles and possibly a book-length manuscript.

The goal of this project is to change the ways people write website and mobile app privacy policy and terms of use statements so the general public can understand more easily the language

Principal Investigator: Estee Beck, Assistant Professor, English