[Air-l] Ethical Disasters? in Internet Research

Stuart Offenbach stuartio at purdue.edu
Thu Jul 11 20:15:14 PDT 2002

Dr. Frank Thomas asked what made Rimm's study unethical. Several things. 
First, readers may review some aspects of the study in an article by 
Fowler in AAAS's Professional Ethics Report (Fowler, A. (1995), CMU 
Pornography Study, Professional Ethics Report, 7(3), pp. 1 and 6.)

The 'controversy' started with Martin Rimm's report of a study published 
in the Georgetown Law Journal. Rimm was an undergraduate EE student at 
Carnegie Melon University and was funded by 4 CMU grants. The purpose of 
the study was to determine how pornographers use computer system to 
market their services. As part of the study, Rimm tracked on-line 
activities of CMU students, staff, and faculty to determine the amount 
of pornographic material downloaded.

Rimm did not obtain or receive consent, nor did he (apparently) have 
explicit permission from his faculty mentor to carry out these aspects 
of the study. The report was considered the first "egregious" example of 
"cybersnooping," and many saw it as a clear violation of privacy rights. 
(I filed my outline and notes in my ethics/privacy folder).

I don't know if this study is infamous, nor if it has been published in 
a peer reviewed journal other than the Georgetown Law Journal. Other 
readers in this group can probably cite sources and web sites that 
discuss the study.

Stuart I. Offenbach
Department of Psychological Sciences
Purdue University

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