Four years ago, researchers at AOL released supposedly-anonymized search logs for more a half-million users. The New York Times then used the data to identify individuals such as Thelma Arnold, who had run searches including "dog that urinates on everything" and "60 single men". AOL moved on, but history repeats itself: two years ago, a little sleuthing de-anonymized a new dataset of Facebook activity, putting hundreds of Harvard students' lives in the public eye.
Researchers examining social processes online have emailed fake help requests to online groups and posted hundreds of Facebook statuses to friends -- maybe to you. Data mining researchers, application builders, and social scientists want to collect and analyze data about your activities online. But when do we cross the line? What if you found out that your friend's vicious breakup on Facebook was actually just posed as part of an experiment, or that your Facebook wall had been analyzed because one of your friends opted in?
This year at CSCW, beyond keynotes and research papers, ethics in in the air. Saturday saw a full-day workshop on the topic, followed by a lively panel on Monday. The organizers' ultimate goal is to define a set of ethical guidelines for online research to preempt the inevitable online research calamity closer in scale to the Milgram Experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment.
One topic of debate is the distinction between Terms of Service (ToS) and ethical boundaries. For example, it's easy to pull off a completely ethical study or data set that is very much in violation of terms of service: for example, collecting information about Facebook users using an application with their consent. (Facebook disallows the storage of any of its information for more than 24 hours. Empirically, a great many applications do this anyway, but should researchers be held to a higher standard?) Likewise, it's simple to design legally acceptable research that is nonetheless ethically questionable: a lack of third-party consent means that you can't save information about a person's Facebook friends even though Facebook gives out that information freely to its users.
Some open questions:
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