Involving the virtual subject

Ethics and Information Technology 2 (4):233-240 (2001)
Abstract
As users of computer networks have become more active in producing their own electronic records, in the form of transcripts of onlinediscussions, ethicists have attempted to interpret this new situation interms of earlier models of personal data protection. But thistransference results in unprecedented problems for researchers. Thispaper examines some of the central dichotomies and paradoxes in thedebate on research ethics online in the context of the concrete study ofa virtual community that we carried out. We argue that alienation, notprivacy, is the actual core of the ethical problems of virtual communityresearch. While practically everybody is allowed and often welcome tojoin online communities (which undermines the claim to privacy), mostparticipants would agree that members and visitors are not authorized touse, or `harvest,'' or sell the product of the group communication. To dothat, they would be expected to ask for permission preferably before thecontent has been produced, thus granting participants'' right to controltheir own product. This `non-alienation principle'' should be the basisof emergent social conventions in cyberspace. It would apply toresearchers as to anyone else. With certain types of research, wesuggest, cyberspace provides unique opportunities for empoweringsubjects by involving them as contributors in the research project.
Keywords cyberspace   online community   privacy   research ethics   virtual community
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