When it comes to conducting research within online communities, some might substitute “exploitation” for the word research. Researchers certainly have an ethical, if not legal, obligation to adhere to any internet community guidelines prohibiting researcher contact. Violating these guidelines is clearly unethical.
As Eysenbach and Till point out, communities without guidelines create a more ambiguous environment. If a community doesn’t specifically preclude “outside” participation, a researcher could reasonably argue that contacting members isn’t an ethical violation. It is reasonable to assume that internet communities without specific exclusions are open to everyone? I understand, and sympathize with, the privacy argument. However, if the host/sponsoring organization has not made efforts to protect participants’ privacy, is it the researcher’s responsibility to do so?
Even if researcher activity is accepted, other ethical considerations come into play. The internet has the capability to dehumanize. Markham et al., 2012, raise the question, “Is this a text or a person?” The authors mentioned protection of vulnerable populations. Though this issue is not unique to online communities, the “distance” between researcher and subject in the online environment makes it difficult for researchers to gauge subjects’ mental/emotional stability. Authenticity is also a factor. Is the subject who she/he says he is? Does he/she really have the characteristics/experiences the researcher requires?
The IRB regulates research on human subjects. Should a similar body be created to oversee privacy in online communities? Should participants in online communities expect that level of privacy?