Home > research ethics, social computing > Terms of Service and Online Research–Inconsistency in Enforcment

Terms of Service and Online Research–Inconsistency in Enforcment

There was lots of talk about Internet research ethics at the CSCW conference, and the topic kept returning to Terms of Service (TOS). If you study an online site, do you need to abide by the site’s TOS?  For many sites, most notably Facebook, the TOS may make research near impossible. So does that mean the site can only be studied with the consent of the corporation? What if the corporation doesn’t feel like being studied? Sure, it’s their intellectual property. But if a site becomes an important part of culture and society, should the corporation have total control over how we try to understand it?

Is following TOS an ethical issue, or just a legal one? TOS are there to protect the interests the corporation. But they also often protect the interests of the users, because that’s usually in the best interests of the corporation. They tend to protect users from the actions of third parties (like outside researchers), but let the company itself do whatever it wants. For academic research, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and codes of research ethics are there to protect human subjects in studies. So at CSCW, several researchers argued that abiding by TOS is more of a legal question than an ethical one. The ethics are already covered by IRBs, and TOS are written with a business and not ethical mandate.

As a matter of law, it’s not clear that all TOS are legal. You can write anything you want in a TOS–that doesn’t mean it’ll stand up in court. But we won’t really know what will stand up in court until it’s actually litigated. And it’s rare for anyone to have the time or money to want to do that. Can a corporation prevent you from analyzing data posted openly online? Does it matter if it’s accessible without a password? Is violating such a policy a legal contract violation, or just grounds to lose your account?  We honestly don’t know.

The icing on the cake is that third parties outside of academic research don’t usually follow TOS. People at the conference were throwing around stats about what percent of Facebook applications violate the TOS. Most seem to. So the TOS aren’t an ethical document, it’s not clear if they’re truly legal, most people don’t really follow them… and yet academics are supposed to follow them meticulously?  Does this make sense to you?

If you argue that this is a legal issue and not an ethical one, there’s still  one problem: the ACM’s professional code of ethics explicitly says that we must abide by TOS.  When this was raised during an ethics panel discussion at CSCW, one senior researcher in the audience said then he’d resign his ACM membership if necessary. To further complicate things, other professional societies don’t have such rules. Many communities not only don’t recognize TOS, but also don’t believe that what they do is human subjects’ research at all.

At a recent major conference, a paper that clearly violated Facebook TOS was brought to the conference chair for discussion by the program committee. The chair said, “Print it!  They can sue us if they want.” But here’s the problem: at a different major conference the same year, multiple papers were rejected for not following the same TOS.  I’m not sure how much I care whether we follow TOS as a field, but I care very much that things are consistent and fair. One researcher forgoes a golden opportunity to do research because he feels he must abide by TOS, another goes ahead and does it. Among the ones who go ahead and do it, one gets a rejection, another gets published.  The situation is unfair. And it particularly annoys me that the net outcome is that the nice folks who decide to play by the rules get punished. As a field we need to get our story straight and find some way to have more consistent outcomes.

I’m a rule following sort of a person. I’m inclined to say, all things considered, that we should follow online TOS. And as a result we need new ways to work with corporations to get access to date without violating TOS.  At CSCW I met a grad student who is paid a salary of $1/year by Facebook, and that lets her get access to data. I wish more folks could get that deal–particularly if they are carefully screened and trained in how to handle the data safely.  But I have to admit the folks arguing that we don’t need to follow TOS have some surprisingly cogent points to make. One way or the other, it would be awful nice if we could make a decision and be consistent about it.

One possibility is for ACM conferences to require people submitting papers to explicitly state whether their work was reviewed by an IRB or other ethical board, and whether it abides by relevant TOS, and reject the work if it does not. This is an appealing idea. At least we’ll be consistent. The problem, though, is that we’ll simply be chasing this sort of work to other venues. Does that really help the state of affairs?  It’s not ideal, but I think it’d be an improvement.

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  1. February 15, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Great post, Amy. I’d only add that as a practical matter, it makes sense not to annoy the sites we want to study. For our own good and the good of research to come.

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