Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

By Lauren Bernauer, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion (1 October 2012).

In this week’s podcast about religion and digital media, Tim Hutchings and Jonathan Tuckett discuss various areas of current research into religion and digital media, such as use of online forums, creation of prayer groups and pages, and also the use of virtual worlds like Second Life in people’s religiosity, and the ability to construct churches and temples in such settings.  My own research deals with digital media and religion, although is more about the religious content of that media than how religious people might engage with it. Yet, I must still examine forums and blogs for general fan reactions to such content, and it is the potential ethics around this type of research practice that will be the focus of this discussion.

When it comes to discovering a community’s response to an issue of interest, the Internet serves as a great resource, for often people will share their opinions on public forums and blogs for the rest of the world to read.  For a researcher this is an easy way to gather material for an argument without having to engage with an ethics committee, or even with the people writing the forum or blog posts.  As these people have made their posts public, they will be found via search engines or the simple browsing of a forum or website. Thus it is generally considered that this content is public domain (McKee & Porter 2009, p.9). However there is some evidence that attitudes towards this are changing.

Before discussing the changes that are occurring in some universities around ethics, the issue of what constitutes ‘public’ and ‘private’ on the Internet should also be considered.  Some might view this simply as a case of: if it can be read without having to sign up and potentially have someone approve your membership, then it is public content.  However, as some scholars have rightly pointed out, just because the place is viewable to all, it does not mean that the members consider their discussions to be public (Elm 2008).  An example of this is Norman K. Denzin’s research of people’s use of a Usenet group to discuss their emotional stories related to destructive relationships (Denzin 1998).  As the archives of this group are open access, Denzin was freely able to find and use the information that members of the community posted, without having to seek consent for its use.  Despite the group’s posting archive being publicly accessible, the people who posted their private stories may not have intended for them to be read by an outsider, someone who had not been involved in similar abusive emotional situations.

Denzin’s research did occur some fourteen years ago when the Internet was still relatively new and not as widespread as it is now. Yet, about the same length of time ago, in 1995, Lynne Schrum wrote on ethics for Internet research, and how the ethics used in standard research might be adapted for those doing research online.  Under the concept of Privacy she writes:

Closely related to unintended or unanticipated harm, the issue of privacy evokes strong emotions among researchers.  Guba and Lincoln (1989) maintain that privacy and confidentiality have also been defined too narrowly, so that the personal space of individuals, including many areas of intense and private significance, are too often considered by researchers to be open to investigation. (Schrum 1995, p.315)

In their recent work, The Ethics of Internet Research (2009), Heidi A. McKee and James E. Porter have built upon the previous research of Mali Sveningsson (2004) to map where statements and information a person reveals online might sit on an X-Y grid.  The X axis represents Private to Public, while the Y axis scales Non-Sensitive to Sensitive.  McKee and Porter add to this by determining that if information can be placed in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant or just outside of it, the information should be regarded as not requiring informed consent.  Examples given include; a resume listed online is Private but Non-Sensitive and thus would not need informed consent, while a public blog discussing a personal account of abuse, despite being Public is highly Sensitive and informed consent should be obtained before using the information in research (McKee & Porter 2009, pp.20–21).

My research deals with statements and information in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant, and as this is the case, should consent be gained from those whose public forum posts I have quoted?  I do not actively engage with these communities, or even actively ‘lurk’, which is considered an advantageous research method by some (Brownlow & O’Dell 2002, p.685), yet the guidelines created by Barbara F. Sharf after her research and communication with an online Breast Cancer support group would suggest that I should (Sharf 1999, pp.254–255).  However it would seem that Sharf’s research would fall into the Sensitive half of Sveningsson’s grid, and as she was actively engaging with the participants of the community, informed consent does seem to be important.

The issues surrounding ethics when researching online and utilising information provided seemingly freely by members of different communities are not clear.  For those interviewing and engaging with people via a digital medium for their research it would seem only sensible that they follow standard ethical guidelines and obtain ethics clearance, just as they would for face-to-face interviews.  Yet, what is not clear is casual observation of forum posting, reading the comments on a YouTube video or blog post.  If it is viewable by all, is it public domain?  Denzin considered it so, yet the Private-Public/Non-Sensitive-Sensitive grid, and our own implicit understanding of prevalent posting habits, would deem that some information of that nature requires informed consent.

At my own institution there are some changes occurring in regards to ethics clearance, primarily for postgraduate students, as it would appear a large number of them are not aware that their research may need an ethics clearance.  In Australia if research is done without approval from an ethics committee, this does not prevent the student receiving a successful Master of Philosophy or PhD examination. However it does deem their dissertations unpublishable, and thus stalls their hopes of an academic career.  One solution to this is to have new postgraduate students complete an ethics clearance form or provide a written acknowledgement of having read through the form to ensure that if they will be conducting interviews or similar for their research they are aware of what is required of them in terms of the law.

There is also discussion of changes being made to ethics clearances regarding online research. Currently this is not required for type of work I do, but in three to five years that could change, with lurking on forums to be considered worthy of seeking ethics committee approval.  This ultimately has to do with potential changes in Australian law, with which ethics committees in research institutions would have to comply.

While ethics regarding research on the internet has been discussed and methods have been proposed for years, it is still something that is unclear and worked out on a ‘case by case’ basis by ethics boards and committees. Although such research is quite common and the Internet is widely used, online research is relatively new. It is safe to conclude that how to tackle the issue of ethical research online will still take some time, even for those currently engaged in this endeavor.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Lauren Bernauer is a PhD candidate in the Studies in Religion department at the University of Sydney. She completed her MPhil in 2007, writing on the computer game Age of Mythology and its portrayal of pre-Christian religion and deities. Her PhD is continuing this topic, though expanding it to include the young teen novel series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the computer game World of Warcraft, and the Japanese video game Ōkami.  She has had articles recently published in Brill’s Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (article co-authored with Garry W. Trompf) and Handbook of Hyper-real Religions.


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