[Air-l] Google is watching !

Charles Ess cmess at drury.edu
Thu May 20 09:36:00 PDT 2004

A brief intervention (paper due for a conference next week!)

I can't reconstruct the history in detail just now - but
A) contrary to Christian's impression, the ethical problems associated with
the technological possibilities of uncovering the identity/identities of
authors whose texts are cited in research has been much discussed as an
issue of central concern to the ethics working committee.  While we did not
explicitly address this specific possibility in the ethical guidelines - we
certainly discuss the issues raised by the conflict between _expectations_
of privacy and the technological realities of the online venue under study.
    The topic has become more explicitly addressed, for example, in the AoIR
4.0  pre-conference workshop, not only as several researchers have raised
precisely the point that any quoted text (e.g., in a USENET group) can be
found with a simple search - but also as other technologies increasingly
render privacy online problematic.
Our own Jeremy Hunsinger's presentation on this point is especially to be
recommended, as he reviews:
Content analysis software
Traffic capture software (Tcp-Dump, Ethereal, Etherape)
Web/User Data Capture
(His presentation on this used to be online - I now don't seem to find it:
B) For my part, I've in fact raised the question, "As such technologies make
"privacy" less and less defensible - how far are we (including researchers)
obliged to protect it?" in a series of conferences on research ethics,
including the RESPECT Project conference in Brussels, January, 2004, and the
NCEHR / CNERH (National Council on Ethics in Human research / Conseil
national d¹éthique en recherche chez l¹humain) conference in Canada, March,
2004.  The resulting conversations have been instructive and helpful.
Two important points to be made here.
1.  It is a basic point of ethical reflection that "what _is_ the case" does
not automatically define what _ought_ to be the case.
People rob, rape, and commit genocide.  They are capable of doing so - and
contemporary technology makes the last increasingly easy to do.  But these
facts hardly justify our saying "and so we _ought_ to rob, rape, and commit
    By the same token, then, to say that we can eliminate any realistic
expectation of privacy through contemporary technologies, beginning with a
Google or other search engine search, does not automatically imply that we
ought to do so - and/or, that we are relieved of any responsibility to
protect an increasingly illusory and threatened sense of privacy.
    Indeed, one response to the increasing erosion of privacy is to find
better means to defend and protect it - whether these involve improved
technologies and/or various forms of ethical, social, and legal responses.
2.  The last response was made especially strongly by the lawyers in the
RESPECT Project conference.  As a reminder: the E.U. has a long and (despite
some "checkering"  in various states' efforts to enforce privacy laws)
strong tradition of seeking to protect online privacy.
In this context, any suggestion on my part that the increasing erosion of
privacy might require us to rethink whether, and if so, how far, researchers
and others are obliged to try to protect privacy was met with an immediate
and emphatic insistence that privacy _must_ be protected - through stronger
laws, including increasing sanctions, for those who violated privacy rights,
if need be.

In my mind, this requires us to go back to the expectations of the persons
we're dealing with as a starting point for developing our sense of ethical
obligation.  This approach is further discussed in the AoIR guidelines, if
anyone is interested in looking further into it.


Charles Ess
Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
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: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/catac/

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

> From: Christian Nelson <cnelson at comm.umass.edu>
> Reply-To: air-l at aoir.org
> Date: Thu, 20 May 2004 02:30:25 -0400
> To: air-l at aoir.org
> Subject: Re: [Air-l] Google is watching !
> ET wrote:
>> Along comes Little Johnny. He Googles using  "Which I guess excludes
>> socialism, fascism, theocracies, authorianism, etc".  Two results are
>> returned and in seconds Little Johnny knows that in fact it was Barry
>> Wellman who made these comments in the AoIR forum on the 30th of
>> January 2004. He even knows what time of day Barry posted, which could
>> be important. And I can see Arts very interesting reply.
>> There is no privacy. Changing names of forums or people means nothing.
> I made this same point in an earlier discussion of research ethics on
> this list (Sept. 3, 2001) but it doesn't seem to have made much of an
> impression. Kinda funny how we forget the properties of the Net and its
> software--treating it as analogous to face-to-face situations when it isn't.
> --Christian Nelson
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