Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is it Ethical to Harvest Public Twitter Accounts without Consent? | Michael Zimmer.org

While participating in the workshop on Revisiting Research Ethics in the Facebook Era: Challenges in Emerging CSCW Research, the question arose as to whether it was ethical for researchers to follow and systematically capture public Twitter streams without first obtaining specific, informed consent by the subjects. Many in the room felt that consent was not necessary since the tweets are public, a conscious choice made by the user to allow the whole world see her activity. In short, by not restricting access to one’s account, there is no expectation of privacy.

I argued, however, that we cannot be so quick to presume the expectations of potential research subjects. Yes, setting one’s Twitter stream to public does mean that anyone can search for you, follow you, and view your activity. However, there is a reasonable expectation that one’s tweet stream will be “practically obscure” within the thousands (if not millions) of tweets similarly publicly viewable. Yes, the subject has consented to making her tweets visible to those who take the time and energy to seek her out, those who have a genuine interest to connect and view her activity through this social network.

But she did not automatically consent, I argue, to having her tweet stream systematically followed, harvested, archived, and mined by researchers (no matter the positive intent of such research). That is not what is expected when making a Twitter account public, and it is my opinion that researchers should seek consent prior to capturing and using this data.

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