Do Researchers Need to Abide by Terms of Service (TOS)? An Answer.
The TL;DR: Reviewers should reject research done by violating Terms of Service (TOS), unless the paper contains a clear ethical justification for why the importance of the work justifies breaking the law. No one should deliberately break the law without being aware of potential consequences.
Do social computing researchers need to follow Terms of Service (TOS)? Confusion on this issue has created an ethical mess. Some researchers choose not to do a particular piece of work because they believe they can’t violate TOS, and then another researcher goes and does that same study and gets it published with no objections from reviewers. Does this make sense?
It happened to me recently. The social app YikYak is based in Atlanta, so I’m pretty sure my students and I started exploring it before anyone else in the field. But we quickly realized that the Terms of Service prohibit scraping the site, so we didn’t do it. We talked with YikYak and started negotiations about getting permission to scrape, and we might’ve gotten permission if we had been more persistent. But I felt like I was bothering extremely busy startup employees with something not on their critical path. So we quietly dropped our inquiries. Two years later, someone from another university published a paper about YikYak like what we wanted to write, using scraped data. This kind of thing happens all the time, and isn’t fair.
There are sometimes good reasons why companies prohibit scraping. For example, YikYak users have a reasonable expectation that their postings are ephemeral. Having them show up in a research paper is not what they expect. Sometimes a company puts up research prohibitions because they’re trying to protect their users. Can a University IRB ever allow research that is prohibited in a site’s TOS?
Asking permission of a company to collect data is sometimes successful. Some companies have shared huge datasets with researchers, and learned great things from the results. It can be a win-win situation. If it’s possible to request and obtain permission, that’s a great option—if the corporation doesn’t request control over what is said about their site in return. The tricky question is whether researchers will be less than honest in publishing findings in these situations, because they fear not getting more data access.
Members of the research community right now are confused about whether they need to abide by TOS. Reviewers are confused about whether this issue is in their purview—should they consider whether a paper abides by TOS in the review process? Beyond these confusions lurks an arguably more important issue: What happens when a risk-averse company prohibits reasonable research? This is of critical importance because scholars cannot cede control of how we understand our world to corporate interests.
Corporations are highly motivated to control what is said about them in public. When I was co-chair of CSCW in 2013, USB sticks of the proceedings were in production when I received an email from BigCompany asking that a publication by one of their summer interns be removed. I replied, “It’s been accepted for publication, and we’re already producing them.” They said, “We’ll pay to have them remade.” I said, “I need to get this request from the author of the paper, not company staff.” They agreed, and a few hours later a very sheepish former summer intern at BigCompany emailed me requesting that his paper be withdrawn. He had submitted it without internal approval. ACM was eager to make BigCompany happy, so it was removed. BigCompany says it was withdrawn because it didn’t meet their standards for quality research—and that’s probably true. But it’s also true that the paper was critical of BigCompany, and they want to control messaging about them. Companies do have a right to control publication by their employees, and the intern was out of line. Of course companies want to control what their employees say about them in public—that makes sense. But what are the broader implications if they also prohibit outside analysis?
If online sites both control what their employees say and prohibit independent analysis, how do we study their impact on the world? Can anyone criticize them? Can anyone help them to see how their design choices reshape our culture, and reshape people’s lives?
From this perspective, one might argue that it can be ethical to violate Terms of Service. But it’s still not legal. TOS can be legally binding, and simply clicking through them is typically interpreted as assent. They are rarely enforced, but when they are, the consequences can be devastating, as the sad death of Internet pioneer Aaron Swartz shows. Swartz was accused of little more than violating TOS, and charged with multiple felonies under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The stress of his prosecution led to his suicide.
For another example, my colleague Brian Larson pointed me to the case Palmer v. Kleargear. John Palmer and Jennifer Kulas left a negative review of Kleargear on the site Ripoff Report after the item they ordered was never sent. Kleargear tried to enforce an anti-disparagement clause in their TOS, and demanded the review be taken down. Since you can’t delete reviews on Ripoff Report without paying a $2000 fee, they declined. Which set in motion a multi-year legal battle. Pending legislation in California may make such clauses illegal. However, the consequences for individuals of violating terms—even absurd terms—remain potentially high.
TOS are contracts. Larry Lessig points out that “Contracts are important. Their breach must be remedied. But American law does not typically make the breach of a contract a felony.” Proposed legal changes, “Aaron’s Law,” would limit the scope of the CFAA so that breaches of contract are treated more like breaches of contract rather than felonies. Breaches of contract often have limited penalties if there is no real harm done. Researchers should keep on eye on this issue—unless Aaron’s Law passes, ridiculous penalties are still the law.
We’re in a quandary. We have compelling reasons why violating TOS is sometimes ethical, but it’s still not legal. So what are we as a field supposed to do? Here’s my answer:
If an individual chooses to take on the legal risk of violating TOS, they need to justify why. This is not something you can do lightly. In publishing work that comes from data obtained by violating TOS, this must be clearly acknowledged and justified. Work that breaks TOS with no justification should be rejected by reviewers. Reviewers should pro-actively review a site’s TOS, if it’s not explicitly discussed in the paper.
However, you should think carefully about doing work that violates TOS collaboratively with subordinates. Can you as faculty take this risk yourself? Sure. But faculty are in a position of power over students, who may have difficulty saying no. Senior faculty also have power over junior faculty. If a group of researchers of differing seniority wants to do this kind of work, the more senior members need to be careful that there is no implicit coercion to participate caused by the unavoidable power relations among members of the research team.
I believe we need legal change to remedy this state of affairs. Until that happens, I would encourage friends to be cautious. Someone is going to get in hot water for this—don’t let it be you.
Do I like the fact that corporations have such control over what is said about them? I do not—not at all. But legal consequences are real, and people should take on that risk only when they have good reason and know what they are doing, without any implicit coercion.
In summary, I am proposing:
Reviewers should reject research done by violating Terms of Service (TOS), unless the paper contains a clear ethical justification for why the importance of the work justifies breaking the law. Reviewers’ should pro-actively check a site’s TOS if it is not discussed in the paper.
If a team of researchers who choose to violate TOS are of different academic ranks (i.e. tenured, pre-tenure, students), then the more senior authors should seriously consider whether more junior participants are truly consenting and not implicitly pressured.
Professionals societies like ACM and IEEE should advocate for legal reform to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) such as the proposed Aaron’s Law.
Do you agree? Leave me a comment!
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