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Doing Research: Internet and Changes in Ethics of Research (and Human Subjects)

By on June 17, 2009 in General, Research Updates with 1 Comment

Charles Ess - Research Conversation

The following notes were written by Charles Ess President of the Association for Internet Researchers (AOIR) and a Professor of Philosophy at Drury University and Aarhus University. On May 22nd. we hosted Charles Ess and Elizabeth Buchanan in a research seminar at the Information School in University of Washington. The topic was Internet and changes in Human Subjects but later it took the direction of ethics of research in an information age. I am thankful to Charles who accepted my invitation to upload his notes here. Hopefully it will create a discussion on the topic.

Notes By Charles Ess:

We began with an epistemological continuum – from “subjective” on the left to “objective” on the right. (These terms are in scare quotes because these distinctions derive from 19th century assumptions about knowledge that no longer hold for important but complex reasons. Another story for another time.) To illustrate and provide examples of methodologies and/or disciplines that undertake research more affiliated with one side of the continuum than the other, I suggested:


But on top of this these, further, are the ethical frameworks that we most frequently bring into play – along with foundational assumptions regarding the nature of the self

So, we find (especially in the U.S. and the U.K.) on the right side of the line, a tendency towards utilitarianism – a kind of ethical “cost-benefit” analysis that, in language familiar to anyone who has read the relevant regulations and guidelines, seeks to minimize risk of harm to subjects – but justifies such risks in terms of the greater good, i.e., the potential benefits of such research for the larger community. 

At the same time, however, we also use (more especially in the Germanic countries, for example) deontologies that emphasize the (near-)absolute rights of human beings. These rights include the foundational rights that are protected under Human Subjects – i.e., rights to informed consent (respecting the basic right of consent essential to beings that are free), privacy and thereby anonymity and confidentiality. This ethical approach, moreover, is affiliated with a modern Western conception of the self as something of an “atomistic self” – the radical individual of modernity that begins with the Protestant Reformation and is articulated by such political philosophers as Thomas Hobbes. (For discussion, see Ess 2009a, ch. 6.)

Conceptions of Self/selves. Here’s where things start to get a little complicated. While utilitarianism tends to assume and be affiliated with a more atomistic conception of the self – deontologies extend at least through a kind of middle conception of the self, what we might call a communitarian conception, one that recognizes that the self is bound up in important ways with those around it, e.g., a close circle of family and friends:


Here, the NESH reference is to the Norwegian guidelines for Internet research. These guidelines explicitly oblige researchers to respect and protect not only the privacy, anonymity, and/or confidentiality of a given individual subject – but also those of his/her close friends and family. The intuition/assumption here is quite simple: publication of sensitive information about a given individual, e.g., as being HIV positive, will not only likely have very negative consequences for the individual, but also for his/her close circle of friends and family. Hence, there are deontologically-based requirements to protect these rights to privacy, etc., for both the individual subject and his/her immediate circle of close relationships.

This takes us still further to the left – to the sense of self as relational or, in slightly different terms, “smeared out.” This is a sense of self that is characteristic of many cultures and peoples around the world, including those countries shaped by Confucian traditions, as well as indigenous peoples, e.g., in Africa (see Paterson 2007), North America, the polar peoples, etc. My friend and colleague Henry Rosemont, Jr., uses the metaphor of the onion vs. the peach. The atomistic self is something like the peach-pit that underlies an external body: while the external body undergoes change and decay – the peach-pit remains the same through time. Relationships with others for such a self are always extrinsic: even if all such relationships are removed, the peach-pit will continue to exist. By contrast, the relational self is constituted by its diverse relationships with others – e.g., friends, family, the larger community, etc. – with each relationship analogous to a layer in the onion. Such relationships are intrinsic to such a self: remove the relationships – peel away every layer of the onion – and there is nothing left.

Such relational selves, finally, are affiliated – so far as I can tell, in every culture and tradition I have explored – with virtue ethics. Precisely because there is no self as “given” – i.e., the peach-pit that remains the same through time – our task as understood within virtue ethics is to become better, more excellent human beings: but this means, human beings characterized by their practices and habits, including the excellences or virtues, e.g., of patience, perseverance, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and so forth. In Confucian thought, as an example, the virtues or human(e) excellences brought to the forefront are those that contribute not only to the well-being of the individual, but also to community harmony.

A central point: we in the “Western” cultures have been moving towards both this (for the moment, more “Eastern”) conception of the relational self for at least a few decades – and with it, towards a (re)new(ed) emphasis on virtue ethics. Very briefly: both environmental and feminist thought – e.g., as Carol Gilligan put it in 1982, the self as interwoven in a “web of relationships,” and as the two are brought together in the work of eco-feminist Karen Warren (1990) – thereby stress our interconnections with one another and larger communities. At the same time, virtue ethics is in the midst of a significant renaissance, as our experience with utilitarian and even deontological frameworks highlights important lacks or deficits that virtue ethics can overcome. As Rosalind Hursthouse puts it, for all of their strengths, neither deontology nor utilitarianism seem to address a number of topics required for a complete moral philosophy, including “moral wisdom or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of the emotions in our moral life, and the questions of what sort of person I should be . . .” (1999: 3). In supplementing utilitarianism and deontology in these ways, virtue ethics thus promises to thus work with these frameworks in complementary fashion.

While all of this pre-dates the emergence of the internet and the world wide web – the introduction and explosive diffusion of these technologies have accelerated this turn towards the relational self. Most briefly, in the phrase of Wellman and Haythornthwaite (2002), these technologies foster the emergence of the networked individual, i.e., an individual who is inextricably interwoven with both strong-tie and weak-tie relationships – numberings in the hundreds, if not the thousands – by way of networked computers and other forms of networked digital communications. More recently, i.e., loosely in conjunction with so-called “Web 2.0,” – i.e., applications that emphasize interactivity, whether in the form of Social Networking Sites and micro-blogging, and/or in the form of sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and others – what Axel Bruns calls the “pro/sumer” appears: such “pro/summers” are both active producers and consumers of self-generated content, in contrast with the more traditional (and comparatively more passive) consumers of professionally-produced mass media content (see Burnett, Consalvo, & Ess 2009). 

Finally, we can think of the self as engaged with Others via social networking sites, blogs, etc., as a “smeared-out” self. That is, via a Facebook or Twitter status update, chat possibilities, etc., at any moment in time, we exist as selves with hundreds, if not thousands of potential connections and interactions. These potentials are realized, however, a few or only one at a time – a friend comments on your status in FB or responds to a specific “tweet,” and you in turn may decide to respond, either with a further comment, a direct message, perhaps an email or perhaps a chat – or not at all. In this way, our self as a web of manifold but largely potential relationships is realized with just a few relationships, or perhaps only one relationship at a time. In this way, our sense of self as a relational self is “smeared-out” among a cloud of possible relationships.

This means at the same time, however, that what Anders Albrechstlund (2008) has helpfully identified as “lateral surveillance” becomes increasingly important – and increasingly the norm. It’s as if such a relational self is more dependent upon the recognition and reinforcement of the Others in its network in order to have a sense of its own reality and significance. And so we seek – perhaps crave – the recognition of Others, if only in the form of phatic communication (e.g., the quick “like” or comment response to a FB status, the quick poke or brief message, etc.) This lateral surveillance, as Albrechtslund points out, is a very old phenomenon among human communities, where such surveillance and communication help bind the community together.

At the same time, however, such a relational or smeared-out self, as so deeply interwoven with such networked communities, thereby practices and expects a very different sort of “privacy” than the atomistic self that has predominated in the modern west, especially over the last century or so (see Meeler 2008). At least, it appears that younger people seem to be much more willing to reveal what people in my generation would regard as extremely personal and thus extremely private sorts of information to others via CMC technologies: indeed, from the standpoint of such an atomistic self, such willful self-disclosure seems to run dangerously close to a kind of “big brother” surveillance society. For us – those of us presuming the modern atomistic self (as foundational to liberal, democratic societies) – this willful self-disclosure seems naïve, if not terribly dangerous.

But seen from the standpoint of the relational or smeared-out self – such self-disclosure is part and parcel of what Albrechtslund calls voluntary or participatory surveillance, forms of surveillance that include the lateral surveillance essential to such selves as interwoven with one another in extensive and complex webs of relationships.

Insofar as any of this is true, then we can expand our diagram still further:


It can be said here, finally, that these transformations are part and parcel of a larger transformation and convergence that seems to be taking place between “Western” and “Eastern” cultures. That is, on the one hand, the phenomenon of lateral surveillance suggests a move towards a more Eastern sense of the self as a relational self – and with it, a lack of insistence on the kind of privacy affiliated with the modern Western atomistic self, especially over the past century or so (ref to first definition of privacy as a legal right). On the other hand, young people in Eastern cultures – specifically Japan, China, and Thailand – have increasingly come to insist on a more Western-style sense of individual privacy, much to the consternation of their parents (Ess 2005). 

Along these same lines, as I have discussed earlier, Soraj Hongladarom has offered a model of a Buddhist empirical self, one that resembles the classical modern Western self that justifies and legitimates liberal democracies. This Buddhist cousin to the Western individual would thereby move Thailand, for example, towards a more democratic, liberal society: but at the same time, this Buddhist concept remains distinctively Buddhist, reflecting the Theravadan Buddhism that defines over 90% of Thais. What emerges here, then, is a pluralistic conception of self – and with it, both ethics and politics. That is, while we may agree in both West and East on a relational self, affiliated with virtue ethics, and justifying a liberal democracy – how these shared norms and beliefs are applied, interpreted, and understood in say, the U.S. vis-à-vis Thailand, will remain distinct in ways that directly reflect and reinforce the foundational values, etc., that define each set of cultural traditions (Hongladarom 2007). Such a pluralism, I have argued, is crucial to any global ethic that seeks not only to establish a shared sense of norms, etc., but also preserve the irreducible differences that define individual and cultural identities (Ess 2005, 2006, 2009b).

In these and other ways, then, it appears that there is a growing convergence towards a more shared, global sense of self – and with it, what will likely be a shared sense of ethical norms, values, practices, etc. that will constitute a pluralistic and global information ethics, including internet research ethics as one particular component (Ess 2006, 2007). That is, as we converge towards more relational senses of self, this sense of self will bring in its train an increased emphasis on the sorts of virtue ethics appropriate to such selves. 

This leads us to the diagram in its final form:


Acknowledgements. My profound thanks to Karine Barzilai-Nahon, Alpha DeLap, Bob Mason, and Tanya Matthews for their invitation and delightful hospitality during our two days of workshops at the University of Washington. Many thanks as well to the participants, especially in Friday’s workshop, for their contributions, insights, and enthusiasm. Particular thanks go to Lori Miller, Director of the UW GenOM Project, for the question about virtue ethics that sparked this effort at response. 



Albrechstlund, Anders. 2008. Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance. First Monday, vol. 13, no. 3 (March 3, 2008). <http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949>

Burnett, Robert, Consalvo, Mia, and Ess, Charles. 2009. The Blackwell Handbook of internet Studies. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ess, Charles. 2005. ‘‘Lost in translation’’?: Intercultural dialogues on privacy and information ethics (Introduction to special issue on Privacy and Data Privacy Protection in Asia), Ethics and Information Technology 7 (1): 1–6.

Ess, Charles. 2006. Ethical pluralism and global information ethics.  Ethics and Information Technology, Vol. 8, Number 4 (November): pp. 215-26.

Ess, Charles. 2007. Bridging Cultures: Theoretical and Practical Approaches to Unity and Diversity Online. Introduction to special issue, Information Ethics, International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction 3 (3 –July-September, 2007), iii-x.

Ess, Charles. 2009a. Digital Media Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ess, Charles. 2009b. Floridi’s Philosophy of Information and Information Ethics: Current Perspectives, Future Directions. The Information Society,25 (3),159-168.

Hongladarom, Soraj. 2007. Analysis and Justification of Privacy from a Buddhist Perspective. In S. Hongladarom and C. Ess (eds.), Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives,108-122. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Meeler, David. 2008. Is Information All We Need to Protect? The Monist , vol. 1, no. 1 (January 2008), pp. 151–169.

National Committees for Research Ethics in the Sciences and the Humanities (NESH), Norway(2003). Research Ethics Guidelines for Internet Research. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from <http://www.etikkom.no/English/Publications/internet03/view_publikasjon>

Paterson, Barbara. 2007. We Cannot Eat Data: The Need for Computer Ethics to Address the Cultural and Ecological Impacts of Computing. In S. Hongladarom and C. Ess (eds.), Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives, 153-168. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Warren, Karen. 1990. The power and the promise of ecological feminism, Environmental Ethics 12: 2 (Summer), 123-146.

Wellman, Barry, and Haythornthwaite, Caroline (eds.). 2002. The internet in Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell.


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  1. Charles Ess says:

    One of my own criticisms of this kind of talk is that in attempting to discern “big picture” patterns of the sort under scrutiny here, one necessarily risks painting with too broad a brush and missing/ignoring too many fine-grained details.
    One of my interests in posting this sort of account, then, is precisely to evoke “yes, but” sorts of responses, i.e., ones that point to countervailing examples, patterns, etc., that would help correct and/or round out the large picture presented here.
    In short – criticisms (of these and/or any other sorts) welcome!
    – c.

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