I’ve been invited to take part in the Oxford Internet Institute’s Internet Ethics seminar on 30 April for a day of debate that, “seeks to remedy these deficiencies in the Internet Ethics conversation, and seeks to sort out, so far as is possible, confusions in ethics, morality, regulation, and social organisation that have held back meaningful discussion and progress in this area.”

Each of the participants has been asked to submit a position paper for discussion on several important questions during the full-day event. I thought, as this is a closed session, that I would open up my paper for comments ahead of time in order to get readers’ views for consideration. The OII has kindly given me their OK to do so.

If you have any comments on any of the questions or any of the positions I’ve laid out in the paper, please do leave them below.

What is ethically distinctive about the Internet in both its form and content?
The Internet is a computer-mediated environment. This presents challenges for researchers considering the ethical implications of their research. Specifically, research has outlined the necessity of new techniques required to establish trust between virtual participants because of the absence of face-to-face interaction. Its computer-mediated nature demands that researchers approach the relationship with a research participant or community member in a new way.

The medium challenges the heuristics that interactants use in face-to-face situations to establish identity, like costume, accent, etc. The onus to display these markers is on the online individual. Thus, the default anonymity demands that researchers create a trustworthy and credible persona, usually by detailing academic credentials and affiliations (when the research design allows). Further, because the Web is an environment in which information about an individual can be easily ascertained, it is important that researchers maintain transparency by being explicit about their research roles, and remain consistent across personal and professional websites.

But the Web consists of many online contexts, which is relevant to both the form of the interaction (e.g., text, audio or video) and to the environment under scrutiny (e.g., online community, e-commerce site, business application, etc), and – just as in offline research – nuanced ethical approaches should be invoked depending on their relevance. For example, a more situated and community-conscious ethical protocol may be required when documenting the practices of individuals who are part of social networking sites, blogging groups, listservs and forums, than when the objects under scrutiny are transactions made during virtual auctions or Web page designs.

What effects do Internet communications, entertainment and data, for instance, have on social norms, individual decision-making and moral development?
There is evidence to suggest that the online environment can have an effect the offline self-esteem and can help to change offline attitudes and behaviours. Thus, it is imperative that ethical prototcols are in place to protect participants from harm. The normative nature of the online community experience has been documented, describing the processes by which individuals are integrated into virtual groups, how hierarchies are formed around participants’ in-group prototypicality, and online normative influence appears to adhere to similar conformity processes as offline normative influence.

There is also evidence that indicates differences; for example, some research proposes that the individual is more self-aware in online contexts due to the active construction of content in these environments via the computer terminal. In addition, there has also been research that argues that the anonymous environment contributes to a greater degree of pluralistic ignorance in virtual interactions. The results have been greater conformity to a perceived norm that is in fact a misrepresentation of actual attitudes and behaviour experienced by online group members.

Further, the mediated nature of online interaction has implications for the effectiveness of online persuasive messages, which in turn may affect individual decision-making and moral development. The content of communication has been found to be more influential than peripheral cues like source characteristics (attractiveness, perceived credibility), suggesting that the form that online research assets take must be carefully considered by researchers before implementation.

How might we better design, build and legislate the Internet and its usage as a result of understanding its intrinsic ethical dimensions more fully?
The international nature of the Internet makes it difficult to legislate, and governments and special interest groups are seeking to identify the best approaches to Web governance that are sensitive to the unique cultural contexts in which it is used.

At the moment, there is a trend for commercial and non-commercial Web applications to view online participants’ data (specifically, behaviours when on a site) as belonging to the application owner. In other words, there is a culture of opt-out rather than opt-in. However, this is poorly articulated to Web users, who may not have an awareness of the value of their data. To integrate the understandings of the ethical dimensions of the Internet, there needs to be a bottom-up shift in how Web users perceive their personal data trails. Although this will likely limit the research questions available for behavioural scientists, recognising the rights of the individual to have ownership over his/her online identity will create a more ethical framework for academic enquiry and commercial use of such information.

What are the implications of ‘value sensitive design’ for the engineering of present and future Internets?
Such ‘value-sensitive design’ will ensure that the individual maintains control over the identifiable information that can be accessed by researchers and commercial organisations. However, it would require a cultural shift in Web application and Internet protocol development. This will require a sea change in training and practice, which may be met with resistance by the established development community.

Do the issues arising from the Internet confirm, challenge or strain currently accepted ethical categories?
The use of the Internet for research challenges the accepted ethical categories in three ways. First, the international nature of the online medium requires researchers to consider the accepted ethical perspectives in other cultures and nations. Second, the anonymity of the medium demands greater investment of time by the people who seek to collect and use data from the Web in order to establish a mutually beneficial trust relationship. Third, the simplicity with which enormous amounts of data can be captured via the Internet requires researchers to consider the value of such data (in both the short and long terms), the implications for documenting identifiable behaviour and the security of the storage methods.

However, although the medium presents challenges to existing ethical approaches, the Internet does not inherently change the accepted categories. The technology connects people to people via a network, and therefore we must be sensitive to the rights of the human subjects behind the connections.