15.357 report on Internet research ethics

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sat Nov 03 2001 - 02:22:07 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 357.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Sat, 03 Nov 2001 07:01:26 +0000
             From: Charles Ess <cmess@lib.drury.edu>
             Subject: preliminary report - internet research ethics

    I'm pleased to call to your attention the preliminary report of the ethics
    working committee of the association of internet researchers, as presented
    to the aoir 2.0 conference this past October in Minneapolis, MN. It can be
    found at


    As the report notes, this is a very preliminary first effort at
    circumscribing the ways in which research into online behaviors is both
    similar to and, in specific circumstances, distinct from traditional human
    subjects research. Accordingly, the traditional guidelines for human
    subjects research (articulated in various national and disciplinary codes -
    some of which are collected as an addendum to our report) are ethically
    relevant to online research - but only up to a point. Beyond the point of
    strong analogies between traditional human subjects research and some
    contexts of online research - there further appear to be distinctive new
    contexts in online research that represent strong _dis-analogies with
    traditional human subjects research, thus calling for novel ethical
    reflection on what rights (e.g., to privacy, anonymity, confidentiality,
    informed consent) subjects may be reasonably expected to enjoy, and thereby
    what researchers may and may not do in the course of their studies.

    There is general agreement - across a number of national borders (committee
    members represent cultures and traditions from around the world, as is
    required for a communications medium with a global reach) - regarding the
    basic values that should guide internet research, _and_ their application to
    specific cases - e.g., whether the communicative behavior of persons in
    chatrooms can be observed without consent. (The committee agrees that it
    can, given that peoples' behavior in public spaces, according to traditional
    guidelines, can be observed without consent - and given a strong analogy
    between a publicly-accessible chatroom and a public space in the embodied
    Of course, there is also spirited disagreement as to the application of
    those values in other cases. We highlight one such case, as a way of
    illustrating that
    a) that distinctive details of a given research context can result in more
    than one ethical interpretation/application of the general guidelines, and
    b) that just as in our real-world efforts to ascertain generally binding
    values and apply them to specific cases (e.g., in law) - disagreement is
    This latter point is _not_ taken as an argument for ethical relativism. On
    the contrary, in keeping with ethics in other domains, there is consensus on
    a broad range of behaviors that are acceptable, as well as a broad range of
    behaviors that are not acceptable. Disagreement regarding the cases "in the
    grey" between those two ranges is to be expected and worked through.
    Another way of making this point: the application of ethical principles is
    _not_ to be taken as a mechanical - indeed, algorithmical! - process, in
    which general principles are somehow applied unproblematically to specific
    cases with specific rulings 'yea' or 'nay' somehow deductively cranked out.
    Rather, as ethicists from Aristotle through Simone de Beauvoir have noted,
    ambiguity, uncertainty, and disagreement are intrinsic to the process.

    This further means, however, that despite the intriguing ways in which
    online research presents both strong analogies and important dis-analogies
    with traditional human subjects research - precisely the dis-analogies, and
    the correlative requirement that we struggle to extend our ethical judgment
    into new areas reiterate other ancient philosophical insights. What is
    needed, Aristotle noted, is _phronesis_, a kind of seasoned and informed
    ethical judgment that, partly through the lessons of experience and
    attempting to apply theory to _praxis_, gradually develops into a largely
    reliable ethical sensibility that can indeed cope with new contexts and
    situations. Confucius would not disagree.

    As the report itself emphasizes, this document is but the first step in an
    on-going process. On behalf of the committee, I welcome any comments and
    feedback HUMANISTS may wish to provide.

    With hopes for peace,

    Charles Ess
    Director, Interdisciplinary Studies Center
    Drury University
    900 N. Benton Ave. Voice: 417-873-7230
    Springfield, MO 65802 USA FAX: 417-873-7435
    Home page: http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
    Co-chair, CATaC 2002: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/catac02/
    "...to be non-violent, we must not wish for anything on this earth which the
    meanest and lowest of human beings cannot have." -- Gandhi

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