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Applied Ethics in Internet Research

Editor: May Thorseth
Publisher: Trondheim, Norway: NTNU University Press, 2003
Review Published: May 2006

 REVIEW 1: Ted M. Coopman

What are the ethical challenges for internet research? Applied Ethics in Internet Research seeks to answer the question through eleven short chapters by experienced scholars and graduate students taken from a one-week conference and graduate course at the Programme for Applied Ethics at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim. The book is divided into two sections. The first four contributions are from the lecturers and broadly cover ethical issues in internet research. The second section of seven contributions covers some basic topics grounded in particular contexts. The approach to the subject is generally methodologically based, so it skews toward pragmatism. The book's premise is this: The terrain of the internet not only possesses new challenges compared to traditional scholarship, but is also constantly changing and possesses new and serious ethical dilemmas for the researcher. The purpose is to address some of these issues in a meaningful way to offer a guide to the research community engaged in online scholarship.

After referencing the Ethical Guidelines produced by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), May Thorseth, the volume's editor, a senior researcher in Philosophy, and Coordinator for the Programme of Applied Ethics at NTNU, presents some guiding questions that other authors seek to address. The first two are broadly placed: "Whether internet research contributes to more extended freedom and sharing of ideas compared to traditional culture" (viii) and "whether the freedom of expression of the internet at the same time may imply more homogeneity because the audience is limited" (ix). That is, if there is more freedom online, is it necessarily a good thing for culture and society? Thorseth next approaches more methodological issues that consistently vex internet researchers (as well as the Human Subjects Review Boards who oversee them), including the demarcation of the public and the private and issues of vulnerability especially for special populations such as youth. This leads us to issues of informed consent, pseudonymity, challenges of what constitutes meaningful data, and links between our embodied/disembodied online/offline selves.

Dag Elgesem opens the first section discussion by asking, "what are the relationships between the internal norms of good scientific practices and external norms pertaining to the ethics of research?" (3) Moreover, "does the correspondence of normative structures have any moral implications?" (3). Central to his analysis is the claim that that the underlying structures of the internet and the cultures that arise from it are similar in important ways to the culture of scientific research. Elgesem compares Castells' (2001) online cultural categories with Merton's (1973) scientific norms. For example, Castells techno-meritocratic culture and its embedded-ness in the architecture of the internet and the "hacker" culture comprise an ethic of open access that relates to Merton's "communism" (social not political) in that they all value openness, peer review, and building on each others work. His premise is that while open and dynamic systems thrive on critique, "the implications for research ethics of the parallels between the norms of science and those internet culture are limited" (11).

Charles Ess takes a historical approach within a framework of Cartesian duality and eastern concepts of life/death in the internet ethics issue. The reader is taken on an intense crash course of comparative philosophical development through the ages that is as difficult to follow as it is summarize. However, the persistent reader is rewarded with a well-founded argument over the problems with divorcing online and offline research with the embodiment of the individual. That is, while it may be tempting to not apply Human Subjects regimes grounded in physicality to "virtual" realms, the post-modern development of non-dualistic subjectivity makes it problematic. Therefore, online and offline research must adhere to the same basic principles. Ess argues that a global ethics is possible and that the evolution from a dualistic to a more unified view of the self represents a bridging between Confucian and Aristotelian philosophies. Moreover, Ess argues, this is a reasonable course of an increasingly connected world.

Chris Mann approaches the ethics issue in a systemic and pragmatic way. She divides the topic into four distinct sections: ethical issues linked to the focus of research; ethical issues linked to the use of the internet as a data-gathering tool; the key ethical debates on the issues; and the assessment of risk. These areas are laid out in a clear, concise fashion often in the form of questions Mann. Of particular interest is the subject of who "owns" online communication. As is often the case with online research, she raises general issues in doing research that are often sidestepped or downplayed, such as does the researcher adopt the ethics of the online world or enforce her own? Mann discusses these and goes on to propose a checklist of ethical issues in internet research. She concludes with a note on the dangers of poorly performed research on the project of scholarship in general. This chapter forms an excellent primer on the topic that is suitable for undergraduates as well as experienced scholars.

Annette N. Markham's perspective on ethics is based on an ethnographic approach. She states, "rather than creating or adopting a formulae, an ethical researcher is one who is mindful from start to finish" (52). By mindful, she means "present, prepared, honest, reflexive, and adaptable" (52). She illustrates this holistic method by examining specific junctures in the research process that bring about ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas include boundary drawing, participation versus observation, choosing what data to use/collect, and how we write up or represent what we uncover. Markham observes that it is important to realize that the simple logistics of a project have much broader ethical consequences such as influencing how people are represented, which aspects are highlighted/dismissed, the creation of ideologically loaded bases of knowledge, and the possibility of impacting legislation or policy. The scaling of the micro-logistical to the macro-societal is particularly compelling and useful and brings one back to the broader issues of the researcher's role in society.

Janne C. H. Bromseth begins the second section with a discussion of the intersection of method and ethics within the Norwegian research context. Of particular importance is the notion that a "one size fits all" approach may not be the most useful, or even the most ethical, way to regulate research. Bromseth's study focuses on the nature of a specific type of discussion list that is situated within a pre-existing ethical (medical) framework and used by a distinct population. This follows the cleavages between a rules-based or deontological versus a more consequentialist or greatest good approach. The Norwegian regime favors the former. Her discussion of the issues raised by perception of public or private space as opposed to a more structure oriented one is especially insightful. She concludes that any ethics guidelines need to be context sensitive and sufficiently flexible to take into account a researcher's discipline and the cultural situatedness of the studied group.

Roe Fremstedal uses Sunstein's (2001) thesis that the fragmentary nature of the internet is a threat to democratic practice as a spring board to ethical online conduct. Sunstein's argument that the internet amplifies pre-existing societal problems is compared to more classical ethical and philosophical positions of Hegel and Kierkegaard. Primarily, this centers on the idea of the acceptance of difference and reciprocal relationships. Fremstedal raises an interesting point concerning the disproportionate disadvantage of cultures with rich non-verbal communication, such as Japanese, in textual online environments. One must embrace Sunstein's position that we have an overriding tendency toward homogeneous relationships via the internet to resonate with Fremstedal's argument that a lack of physicality online is ethically debilitating. The issue for Fremstedal is that ethical reciprocity and the respect for the other is enhanced by physicality.

Heidi Gilstad asks if telecommunications and the internet are contributing to the development of far ranging standards for ethics and behavior, specifically in telemedicine. Telemedicine here is defined as "the practice of medicine over a distance," which ranges from information websites to advanced synchronous cooperation during surgeries (112). She approaches the issue from a pragmatic perspective that reflects her background in both education and telemedicine. While identifying the overriding ethical concerns within the governing bodies of medicine, patient confidentiality, and anonymity, she takes a novel approach to basic foundations of telemedicine technology. That is, the creation, adoption, and use of new technologies are often motivated by special interests and concerns that have little to do with the ethics of medical practice. Moreover, the author argues, design and implementation must take into account the global nature of telemedicine and the cultural and social issues that arise from diverse practices. Gilstad concludes by offering a set of guidelines for the development of telemedicine applications. These guidelines include adhering to the general rules of medical communication, making explicit any ethical guidelines for use of material, and awareness of the effects of linguistic elements and content choices, among others.

Camilla Halvarson and Peter Lilliengren explore ethical and methodological dilemmas that arise in studying explanatory systems among young adults in online discussion groups. Explanatory systems are the mechanisms in which we fill knowledge gaps in problem formulation, identification, and resolution. At issue is informed consent of informants in a naturalistic setting. For example, while a deontological approach would demand overt consent, a utilitarian perspective would place goals and results above formal consent. However, a hybrid system would focus value on the information obtained in a consenting dialogue between the researcher and the subject.
Halvarson and Lilliengren focus on the issues of public versus private online venues. They conclude that in certain cases the expectation of privacy and potential risk can be sufficiently mitigated so that formal consent is not ethically required. That is, as long as the privacy and dignity of the users of a forum can be ensured formal consent should be an ethical imperative. However, they stress that decisions on consent much be seriously considered on a case-by-case-basis.

Cecila Löfberg discusses the ethical challenges of child research on the internet, particularly balancing the advantages of mitigating the power and authority of an "adult" with the ethical demands of informed consent. The concern for the researcher is that a phenomenon would be destroyed by knowledge of the presence of the observer. As with other chapters, the issues of expectation of privacy, deontological versus utilitarian approaches, and the actual risk to the participant are discussed. Of particular utility to the general discussion of ethics is an extensive list of issues and criteria that Löfberg goes through for interacting with children online. She carefully and systematically weighs general ethical approaches to realistic considerations in the pragmatics of research. This discussion provides a potential framework for other researchers to use in weighing ethics and methodology in online naturalistic contexts.

Helge Ridderstrøm's interests lie in the ethical challenges in studying youth-created homepages. He explores at some length the complex interplay of possible perceptions of privacy, possible reactions to being the subject of research, and the difficulties of even making contact to obtain consent. He develops six categories of homepages and ways to approach them for research. They include: 1) homepages with very intimate information, pornography, and other harmful material; 2) homepages used for extensive research and analysis; 3) a homepage that has disappeared from the net; 4) a homepage analyzed extensively without permission; 5) the expensive background material (that can allow the pages to be traced); and 6) an analysis of an unofficial part. Unfortunately, these categories are very specific to his particular project and do not easily fit into an organized typology. However, they do offer some critical insights into the pragmatic ethics of researching this type of phenomenon.

Svein Sando, a self-described Christian theologian, discusses the ambiguity in Christian theology and Christianity in (dis)embodiment, how this is crucial to ethics because vulnerability is an important "ethical sensor," and finally offers a six-part outline for ethics in cyberspace centered on bridging body empathy and virtual actions to encourage empathy. He observes that religion and virtual reality both share characteristics of simulated death and immortality. Sando's analysis of the Bible for positive portrayals of the body and his linkage to empathy as a basis for ethics are thorough and well-reasoned, especially in light of the influence of Christianity on western culture. The secular relevance is also clear and he handles the interplay with equity. Of particular interest is his cautioning over technology that seeks to overcome embodiment and vulnerability. The ethical danger is the loss of physicality and thus empathy for the condition of others.

Applied Ethics in Internet Research is at times difficult and uneven, which is not surprising considering the circumstances of its creation. However, I find to be very useful, both as a whole and in parts, in addressing the fundamental issues surrounding ethics in online research. I could see how specific chapters could be used in a variety of teaching contexts for undergraduates, as a whole for graduate students, and as a resource for experienced scholars in all phases of research. In particular, I see it as potentially adding weight and perspective to a Human Subjects application. This volume is an important step in addressing ethics in a dynamic environment and I hope that it will foster further discussion on the topic.

Castels, M. (2001). The internet galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Merton, R. (1973). The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sunstein, C. (2001). Republic.com. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Ted M. Coopman:
Ted M. Coopman is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle. His research interests include emergent self-organizing resistance networks, parallel social structures, social movements, media as dissent, and media law and regulation.  <coopman@u.washington.edu>

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