How do we decide what is public and what is private?
In the real, physical world that’s easy enough. For instance, your home is a private place and the local park is public. But in the online, virtual world the line between public and private is surprisingly thin and difficult to define.
Information may be posted online on a seemingly private website, only for the poster to later find the entire website archive has been made public. In addition, many of us feel information we share online is personal, even if we’re chatting on forums available to the public.
But what about when we visit a website? As an article on Marketing Pilgrim brings into question, “If you visit a company’s website, are you implicitly giving your consent for them to monitor your activity on their site? Record your IP address? Count your visit on a counter? Is visiting their website analogous to visiting their lobby where your image could be captured on security cameras?” (McCollum, “Is The Internet ‘Public’?”)
It becomes even more complicated when using the internet for research.
For example, there’s a phone app called Vent, where people “vent” (aka post) about things happening in their lives. People can vent about anything from having a really bad day to getting a good mark on a test they studied hard for. So what if you wanted to study how people use Vent?
In this situation it’s more complicated than just getting permission to use a single person’s information, especially if you’re collecting data from a very large number of individuals. Do you need permission from every single person? What if you never mention any of these people by name? Maybe you’re just collecting a statistic on how many vents involve cats, so the exact information about an individual won’t be included. Is this still violating their privacy?
In some cases though, we can accidentally violate someone’s privacy despite thinking we are protecting it. Let’s say you've quoted a line from someone’s story on the internet, but haven’t revealed their name. Someone could Google this quotation and thus track down the identity of the original poster. Alternately, you might include information like a web link in your data; if your research is shared with other researchers or later becomes public then that information can possibly provide a trail back to a private/anonymous source.
Drawing a line between public and private isn't as simple as it may seem at first, and at times violating a person’s privacy despite good intentions is all too easy. Perhaps part of the key to conducting research online is considering if the members of a chat room, website, etc. view their space as private, and respecting this view if the answer is yes.
It is hard to say in a single blog post for certain how we can decide what’s public or private, but this is something that all researchers on the internet must consider to ensure what we do is ethical.
Himma, Kenneth, and Tavani, Herman. *The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. *New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008. Print.
Joinson, Adam, et al. The Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
McCollum, Jordan. “Is The Internet ‘Public’?” Marketing Pilgrim. n.p., 23 Jan. 2008.