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Don’t be that person who mixes up opt-in and opt-out

Filed in Encyclopedia ,Ideas
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We talk a lot about default policies, in particular opt-in policies and opt-out policies (e.g., opt-in vs. opt-out policies for membership in organ donor pools).

When we speak about this stuff, people asking us questions often use the terms backwards or incorrectly. They say opt-in when they mean opt-out and they say opt-out when they mean opt-in. Or they use either when talking about forced choice. Here’s an example from the Chief Technical Officer of Lenovo making the mistake when talking about the Lenovo adware fiasco.

Q. What kind of quality assurance process would even allow for installing this kind of adware on Lenovo machines?

A. At a high level, the team that defines what is in these products will encounter stuff in the market, then they will say, “Here is something we want to do,” and they will engage an engineering team. Then we will go through this thing and make sure it adheres to our policies and practices. We make sure it doesn’t know who the individual is. We make sure it’s opt-in. But what was completely missed in this was the security exposure caused by the design of the certificate authority they used.

Q. There was nothing about this experience that was opt-in.

A. When you buy a Lenovo machine and turn it on, this was one of the programs that was presented to you. At that point, you could click a button that says, “I don’t want to use this.”

Q. I have to press you on that. What did the opt-in prose look like? Nobody recalls anything about this being opt-in.

A. I don’t have it in front of me, but I will get it to you. We want to make this right going forward. Part of this is what we are doing to fix the problem and what are we doing to make this right going forward. To that end, we’re trying to present – in much more plain English — a view of what these programs do.

If the program activated the adware for those who didn’t click “I don’t want to use this”, it was opt-out, not opt-in.

If the program made you answer before activating your computer, it was forced choice (or mandated choice), not opt-in.


Opt-in means users are out by default and can choose (i.e., opt) to be in.

Opt-out means users are in by default and can choose (i.e., opt) to be out.

Forced choice means people are deprived of the product or service unless they choose to be in or out.

For many policies, forced choice is not an option. For instance, for organ donation, they can make you choose in order to get a driver’s license; they can deprive you of the license. But if you decide you don’t want a driver’s license, the default of the country applies to you. You can’t make being an organ donor a forced choice.


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