[Air-l] Re: air-l digest 9 May 2001

Charles Ess cmess at lib.drury.edu
Fri May 11 13:01:02 PDT 2001


My great thanks to Prof. Walther for taking the time to respond to my post:
his constructively critical observations are precisely the sort of comments
I had hoped might emerge here, as a way of helping the Ethics Working
Committee move further along in its discussion, now with the infusion of
additional insight and reflection.
In particular, he is precisely right (so far as I can tell, at least) to
point out 
> While 
> there may be emerging consensus that human subjects research protections
> should extend to Internet research, there is a distinct non-consensus about
> what kinds of Internet research is Human Subjects Research.
including his carefully developed argument that
> So at one extreme end, Usenet postings, at least as interpreted within the
> U.S. codes, are not protected.
Precisely.  Beyond the very helpful references to current U.S. codes,
however, we are also faced with the larger questions: (1) since codes,
including IRB standards, may well change, especially in light of various
social and political pressures that emerge from the diffusion of a new
technology  - in what ways _should_ those codes be changed (if anyone
bothers to ask us - smile!), in order to better represent the legitimate
claims of researchers, ethical rights and responsibilities of both users and
researchers, etc.? and (2) as important as current U.S. codes are - do
they/will they provide sufficient ethical guidelines for a global medium and
global community of researchers?
Clearly, the latter is an especially difficult nut to crack - consider just
the contrast between U.S. and U.K. attitudes and law towards protecting
privacy online.  As I understand it, at least, current U.S. law tends to
privilege the right of individuals and corporations to "mine" data first,
with concerns about protecting privacy left to individuals and special
interest groups - in contrast with the default understanding in the UK that
privacy as a right comes first, such that the burden of proof for any
possible compromise of that privacy must be first established by interested
corporations and individuals.  (I have a similar - if somewhat more dated -
sense that this is likewise the stance represented by various "data
commissioners," etc., established especially in the Scandanavian countries -
can somebody correct/update me here?)
As we (I'm presuming here that the current majority of Internet researchers
are U.S.-based - wrong again?) attempt to take into account even larger
differences in cultural and ethical sensibilities - obviously (a) it will be
incumbent upon researchers in any given locale to be aware of how far their
own values, traditions, practices, etc., may or may not cohere with those
associated with folk in different places and (b) it becomes proportionately
harder (but not, I think, impossible) to find some coherency and/or
consensus regarding at least some base-level guidelines.
(One possibility here is a pluralist approach, one that distinguishes
between those values and guidelines appropriate for work _within_ a
specified cultural domain and those - more or less by definition, less
specific because more global ["thin" in Michael Walzer's terms] - that might
stand as a kind of moral common denominator among diverse cultural domains.
Researcher/s might shape their work according to one or both sets of
guidelines, depending on the "target" of their work - i.e., a specific local
cultural domain and/or a broader/global cultural domain.)  Still...

> Some will argue that ethics and laws are not the same, and that these
> legalistic interpretations are US-centric.  These points are
> valid.  However, as Ess's argument implies, they are strongly related issues.
No quarrel with you there!

Nor here:
> I hope that the following is clear and obvious:  Guidelines and concerns
> that may fit one kind of Internet venue (e.g. a live chat in which a
> researcher actively participates) may not fit other venues (e.g. the
> analysis of extant, publicaly-accessible postings).  Guidelines and
> concerns that fit one kind of treatment of data (e.g. ethnographic analysis
> and reporting of texts) may not fit other treatments (e.g. abstraction
> through content analysis, feature analysis, etc.).
Precisely so. 

> I appreciate the work of those who are trying to articulate ethical
> guidelines.  It is critical to avoid, however, claims about emerging
> consensus that do not explicitly consider the wide variation in research
> approaches, types of data, or the detailed aspects that define some
> procedures as human subjects research and others as exempt, that ultimately
> could constrain researchers from doing work that should otherwise proceed
> unencumbered.
And I apologize for giving the impression of any strong sense of consensus
that did _not_ take such variations into account, etc.  I would say that the
discussions we've had on the ethics list so far have done fair justice to
the sorts of variation and detail that Prof. Walther rightly foregrounds
here - but he has enriched that discussion (at least for me) with these
fine-grained comments and observations.

Again, that was precisely my hope - many thanks!

Additional comments, corrections, counterexamples, resources, etc., warmly
welcomed. Cheers and best wishes,

Charles Ess
Chair, Philosophy and Religion Department
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.                          Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA            FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/Departments/phil-relg/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC 2000: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/catac00/
"Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.  Persons appear by
entering into relation to other persons." -- Martin Buber, _I and Thou_

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