Home > research ethics, social computing > More on TOS–Clarifications

More on TOS–Clarifications

Thanks for the interesting emails and Facebook comments about TOS (you all should post comments here!) A few clarifications:

ACM Code of Ethics and TOS

The ACM Ethics Code says:

1.5 Honor property rights including copyrights and patent.

Violation of copyrights, patents, trade secrets and the terms of license agreements is prohibited by law in most circumstances. Even when software is not so protected, such violations are contrary to professional behavior. Copies of software should be made only with proper authorization. Unauthorized duplication of materials must not be condoned.

To me, that adds up to saying you must respect Terms of Service. We could debate whether TOS and ‘terms of license agreements’ mean the same thing–one phrase is traditionally used for online services and the other for software you buy. But a TOS I think is a kind of software license agreement, and hence the above applies.  And the intent–to respect others’ intellectual property–applies too. Contents of an online service are generally considered intellectual property of the corporation. (We could have an even more complicated argument about that point.)

Additionally, section 2.8 of the ACM code  says you should access computer systems only when authorized to do so. You’re only authorzied to do so for an online service when you abide by the TOS, so again this reinforces the point.

In any case, I wanted to clarify that the ACM Code of Ethics doesn’t precisely mention TOS, and all of the above is open to interpretation

This isn’t about Facebook & I’m Not Criticizing Facebook

This isn’t just about Facebook–the TOS of many sites cause problems for researchers. Facebook is a key example because it’s so big that many people want to study it, and its terms are among the more restrictive.

I’m not in any way criticizing Facebook or its TOS. They are a corporation and have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of the corporation. Their TOS are fairly well designed for that purpose.

One of the fascinating thing about the Facebook TOS in particular is that they are grounded in a system of selective enforcement. The TOS are not strictly and consistently enforced. Is this a matter of limited resources?  I’m sure that’s the biggest part of it. But it’s also a strategy for protecting themselves.  They can’t define clearly what sort of use of Facebook data is OK and what’s not, so they make it mostly all against TOS, but then choose what counts as a bad enough violation to enforce. It’s an incredibly complicated socio-technical system.

Size of the Community Counts

Lynda Mitchell, founder and President of the site kidswithfoodallergies.org (KFA), wrote to mention that their TOS say:

Announcements about research projects, solicitations of subjects for interviews or studies, conducting surveys, polls, or otherwise gathering information about members for anything other than personal use without the expressed permission of KFA.

That sounds extremely sensible to me. As a long-time member of KFA, I’d be furious if someone was researching my posts there without careful review. People post private medical info there–and also get help for problems with teachers at school, family members… lots of sensitive stuff. So how is KFA different from Facebook?  The sensitivity of the data is the first obvious point (though people do get pretty personal on Facebook sometimes too). But more important is the size. It’s much more invasive to study a small group compared to a big one. For example, in studying chatrooms, Jim Hudson and I did a study that found that for every 13 additional people present, we were half as likely to be booted out of the room for saying we were studying it. The bigger the group, the less people care.  KFA is an intimate group, and I’d want Lynda to think very carefully before allowing folks to even ask for study participation.

I still in the end think that we need to follow TOS for sites we study. Even on a big site like Facebook. But it’s a much more complicated question than it seems at first glance.

  1. February 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Lynda and Amy – GimpGirl hasn’t thus far needed a TOS, but we do have a rather detailed statement about who can be a member and who can’t, including different categories of membership, that covers researchers. We haven’t terribly clarified the “written permission” because we actually generally have live meetings between the staff and any researcher, and because typically the researchers we approve have an IRB procedure in place already that handles the “written permission” (exception: journalists/bloggers, who typically interview staff). For our internal research and publications, we have a statement at the beginning of every meeting that meetings are logged for internal use and reminding folks of confidentiality, but we contact every individual who we consider quoting indirectly or directly in anything public and ask for them to approve the use of their words.

    Quoting the parts relevant to researchers:
    “The following people are welcome to join us at all our public events and websites except for our support meetings:
    -Anyone who is interested in supporting the women with disabilities community from an academic . . . standpoint. We welcome input and information from the larger public. We cannot accomplish our goals in a vacuum and we look forward to support from all different directions.
    -Researchers are a valued part of our community, but to ensure our goals are compatible, we require that you receive written permission from GimpGirl Community staff and participants before conducting research within the community. This allows us to keep this space safe for our members.”

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