Internet research ethics (IRE) attempts to clarify and resolve ethical dilemmas encountered by researchers who use the Internet as a medium for their research – for example, doing online surveys – and/or focus on the various forms of interactions observable online, such as virtual communities, social networks like MySpace, web pages, instant messaging, and other forms of computer-mediated communication.
IRE is further complicated as researchers may draw on humanities ethical guidelines, which usually treat someone posting material online as an author (White 2002), and/or social science guidelines, which treat posters as subjects who thus require traditional human subjects protections (Bruckman 2002). Because the Internet connects researchers and those they study across national boundaries, additional complications arise as researchers are constrained by diverse national laws, such as those regarding privacy and data privacy protection, and contrasting research ethics, as countries vary considerably with regard to how human subjects are to be treated.
IRE has been systematically addressed in Germany with regard to the ethics of online surveys (Arbeitskreis Deutscher Markt- und Sozialforschungsinstitute et al. 2001); in Norway as part of a larger research ethics framework (NESH 2003); by the American Psychological Association (Kraut et al. 2004); and, with greater emphasis on the interdisciplinary and international issues of IRE, in the ethical guidelines developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR 2002).
In the Anglo-American world, much of the interest in IRE is driven by research oversight committees, such as the institutional review boards (IRBs) responsible for protecting human subjects in the United States (Buchanan 2002). Such protections minimally include guarantees of subject anonymity, confidentiality of personal information and research data, and a right to informed consent (see Lawson 2004). In addition, subjects are to be exposed to minimal risks and only as these are justified by the research’s benefits. This consequentialist approach in the Anglo-American world contrasts with a more absolute approach elsewhere to protection of these and other basic rights such as privacy (European Commission 1995; NESH 2003). Moreover, different research methodologies require distinctive ethical approaches (Markham 2004). Participant-observation approaches have received the widest attention (Sveningsson 2004; Bromseth 2006). Other methodologies, ranging from discourse analysis to online surveys, will often present different sorts of ethical problems and resolutions (Ess forthcoming).
While especially the AoIR guidelines find extensive use in a variety of disciplines and countries, as our uses of the Internet develop, new ethical concerns continue to arise. For example, how should researchers respond to sensitive and disturbing information online, such as apparently serious considerations of suicide in a blog or home page – especially as posted by minors (Stern 2004)? Blogging opens up new ethical questions regarding citation practices, plagiarism, and libel. Similarly, the explosive popularity, particularly among young people, of social networking venues such as Facebook, MySpace, and others raises important issues beyond those of potential sexual predation. These include the restrictions, if any, that might be justified regarding the content a user is allowed to post. As the Internet continues its explosive diffusion throughout the world – over 1 billion people on the planet have regular access to the Internet – an IRE is needed that is recognized as legitimate for all participants while at the same time respecting the diverse ethical traditions defining distinctive national and cultural identities.
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