Ethical Issues of Online Communication Research

Rafael Capurro
FH Stuttgart, Hochschule der Medien (HdM)
Universtiy of Applied Sciences
Wolframstr. 32
70191 Stuttgart, Germany

Christoph Pingel
Institut für Netzentwicklungen im
Zentrum für Kunst und Medienthechnologie (ZKM, Karlsruhe)
Lorenzstr. 19
76135 Karlsruhe, Germany



eing human is becoming more and more a matter of being online. Our lives, particularly our lives as researchers, and, correspondingly, our research objects and methods, are informed and thus transformed by digital devices and particularly by digital networks. We live in a digital environment in the sense that we look at reality within the framework of its possibility of being digital or of its digitability. This ontological or, to put it in Thomas Kuhn's terminology (Kuhn 1970), paradigmatic dimension does not just concern the fact that we create digital objects and processes or that we are able to create digital models of non-digital objects and processes but the very possibility of a digital casting of the world or a digital ontology (Capurro 2001, Floridi 2000).

We use the concept of ontology in its Heideggerian sense as related to the human capacity of world construction on the basis of the givenness of our being-in-the-world itself. Heidegger's terminus technicus [technical term] for this existential givenness is Dasein (Heidegger 1977). The perception of the finite openness of our existence allows us to produce not just new things but new world ‘castings’ or projects [Entwurf]: within such castings, natural things and processes as well as man-made ones can be understood, discovered and/or invented, and used. At the same time, to be able to perceive the openness of our bodily existence in its tension between birth and death makes us conscious of the relativity of human world constructions. There is a difference, to use the Kantian terminology, between intellectus ectypus or derivative intellect and intellectus archetypus or original intellect (Kant 1974: B 351).

According to Kant, the receptive character of embodied knowledge makes the basis of this difference. That is: while human reason and understanding actively originate or "legislate" (to use a later Kantian term) the forms of our knowledge (e.g., the frameworks of time and space, the categories of causality, etc.) - as embodied beings, we also depend entirely upon the material world as received through our senses for the content of our knowledge. Hence, Kant's transcendental constructivism is a finite one because it is bodily oriented. Similarly, in Heidegger's existential constructivism, Being itself is finite.

The body is the primordial medium of our being-in-the-world. We can take a distance from it only in a derivative way and make it an object within, for instance, the digital casting. The digital casting concerns our existence, i.e., the way we share the world with others as well as, more fundamentally, the way we cast Being itself. (There is a difference between digital ontology and digital metaphysics. From a metaphysical point of view, the real is the digital and vice versa. To put it in Berkeley's formula: To be, is to be digital or Esse est computari (Capurro 1999, Berkeley 1965, 62).)

Digital ontology concerns our understanding of Being. We believe that we understand something in its being when we are able to re-make digitally. Within the digital casting of Being we look at humans as they are online instead of embracing the digital within the "life-world" (Husserl). The online casting pervades our lives, including our lives as researchers. Its predominance has lead to the idea of not only displacing, but even replacing bodily existence (Moravec 1988, Kurzweil 1999). We may call this thinking cybergnosis, i.e., the expectation that we will be able to redeem ourselves from our mortal condition through (digital) knowledge (Capurro 1999b).

The origins of the digital casting can be related to the Greek conception of numbers and points as separated or abstracted (chorismos) from natural beings (physei onta) (Heidegger 1992), and in-formed in the electromagnetic medium (Capurro 2001, Eldred 2001).

What are the characteristics of online existence? First of all, online existence involves a bodily abstraction which implies abstraction from bodily identity and individuality. Secondly, online existence also entails abstraction from our situational orientation - an orientation which includes sharing time and space with others. Thirdly, online existence is presence- as well as globally-oriented. Given the bodily abstraction of online existence, we can also say that digital being-with-others tends to be ghostly-oriented (Capurro 1999a). These characteristics of online existence thus help sharpen the point: ethical dilemmas of Internet research arise from the tension between the proper object of research, i.e. online existence, and bodily existence. The borderline between these two phenomena is interface communication itself.

Epistemological Questions

From the above, it’s obvious that online research faces some serious epistemological and methodological questions. Although each research discipline has to address these issues on its own terms, and although these questions are ethical questions only in a derivative sense (in that we share values that have to do with truth, intersubjectivity, etc.), they nevertheless deserve being mentioned. In the abstract and a-topical space of online communication, the questions of what exactly constitutes a) the subject domain of a research and b) what exactly constitutes a scientific fact are becoming radicalized. In the domain of online communication and online action or behaviour, the wish to "objectify the mind" in a way that Lev Manovich described (Manovich, 2001) so that the digital objects presumably convey a less distorted view or representation of what somebody has on his or her mind corresponds to a blurring of the boundary between fact and theory that derives from the use of software embodying the very theories one wishes to verify. To give an example: while ‘market’ once was a theoretical term used to describe and make sense of what happens ‘in the world,’ now it has become impossible to observe something that can’t be described in the parameters of the latest stock market software. While we may discuss the degree in which ‘theory-laden’ software already constitutes the respective field of research, it has to be noted that in the highly abstract and software-dependent world of online communication and behavior, such effects can’t be completely avoided.

Some Key Ethical Issues of Online Communication Research

On these premises we may be able to identify some key ethical issues of online communication research (AOIR 2001, 2002). We argue on the basis of a tension, not a dichotomy, between face-to-face and interface communication. Face-to-face communication has not per se a higher degree of moral authenticity. We may lie face-to-face and tell the truth in a chat-room or vice versa.

a) Online Identity.

We consider the concept of identity from a twofold perspective. As a metaphysical concept, it refers to what steadily remains in its appearance. Identity in this sense is granted, according to Aristotle, by substance (ousia) i.e. what is supporting (hypokeimenon) changing qualities or accidents (symbebekota) and, according to Plato, by the divine model or exemplar (idea). As an ontological concept, identity means the possibility of projecting or casting one's life within different existential possibilities. The second concept is a richer one since it allows us to relate to different possibilities as such without leveling them out.

We conceive bodily identity as a metaphysical concept when we relate it, for instance, to our genes, eye structure or fingerprints - and as far as these or other substantial and/or accidental characteristics, including all kinds of data about our life, hobbies, publications etc., may be digitized. With regard to identity as an ontological category, it refers to different kinds of life projects that are related but not identical. Within each medium, the body or the digital, these projects include different possibilities - even the case of a permanent change of identity in a chat-room, for example. I may select different kinds of identities in the digital medium that are not identical but remain related to my bodily existence and vice versa.

When facing issues of identity, a main challenge for the ethics of online communication research concerns the awareness of these differences between digital identities and their bodily source, and the possible individual and social harm the researcher may cause when categorizing and reporting data that may influence directly or indirectly the digital and/or bodily life of people with their different life projects.

A solely metaphysical distinction between bodily and digital identity would blur the richer view of existential identity. In particular, a simple metaphysical dichotomy between offline and online identity may lead to unethical consequences: if we ignore the multiple ways in which embodied persons are connected with and emotionally invested in their online identities as part of their existential choices and projects - we run the risk of ignoring the very real harms that can follow when information about online identities is revealed, say, in a research report that fails to anonymize the pseudonyms used in a chatroom by specific persons. The limits of a metaphysical distinction are clear when we consider the history of legal protection of personal data for instance in Germany and the problems faced by such a legislation when related (!) to digitized data collected by different private and/or political bodies with different purposes. Combinations of digitized online data can be a threat to privacy that allows not only governments but also private entrepreneurs to have a detailed view of individuals and groups, their interests, desires, occupations, etc. - thus giving rise to much more comprehensive kinds of manipulations and control than with conventional (particularly paper-based) media.

It is also clear that after the events of September 11 the US will face serious conflicts when applying methods of digital surveillance that may interfere, for better or for worse, in the bodily and digital life projects of people.

To make this point another way, we can ask: What are we doing when we do research on online identities? We may say that we are just exploring the digital presence of human beings. But in fact we are dealing not only with them and not only with presence as far as life projects are related to past and future, thus creating different kinds of relations according also to the possibilities of each medium: in addition, the merging of mass-media and the Internet into a complex digital network creates further tensions. Researchers may be able to study mass-media users’ identities and to provide the means to manipulate them for different purposes.

In general, we may say that especially ethical considerations will not be free of metaphors - quite the contrary: They can help us understand what’s at stake. Michael Froomkin (1995), in an essay on "Cryptography, the Clipper Chip, and the Constitution," described the tension between the metaphors of transportation and free speech in the debate about cryptography, arguing that to stress the transportation metaphor would ultimately lead to rising regularization of the Net (because cars have to be in a certain condition to be allowed on the street) while the free speech metaphor may lead us to a more liberal policy making. As upcoming technologies, especially when they have far-reaching social implications, are usually described and grasped in terms of the metaphors we find for them, and because metaphors can be (partially) misleading, it becomes an ethical question which metaphors we emphasize.

b) Online Language

Human beings are, according to Aristotle, bearers of language (zoon logon echon). The question of language as stated by Plato in the Cratylus concerns the dichotomy between nature and convention (physei/thesei). Aristotle represents a moderate conventionalism as far as his thinking is based on an analysis of different uses of words; at the same he develops a theory of definition that is concept- rather than word-oriented. The conventionalist view of language builds the basis for viewing it as an instrument that can be used for communication. A further step is the conception of artificial language and the idea of a universal code based on mathematical symbols as suggested, for instance, by Leibniz. Computer programs belong, on the one hand, to this tradition. But, as my existential orientation emphasizes, we are able, on the other hand, to view online language as a medium in which we project our existence.

Given these possible understandings or language, it is thus clear that online communication research may aim at an objective and/or existential analysis of online language. It is important to see that this distinction does not coincide with the one between online and face-to-face communication. We may indeed use language as an instrument in a bodily-mediated dialogue and we may communicate online on the basis of all language potentialities that are characteristic of the existential perspective.

These characteristics were analyzed in the 20th Century particularly in the hermeneutic tradition with regard to printed text and oral speech. Online communication is not just a mixture of both but a specific phenomenon that requires what can be called an artificial hermeneutics (Capurro 1995, 1986, 2000).

From a hermeneutical standpoint, a main ethical challenge faced by online communication research is the awareness of the role played by pre-understanding and implicit knowledge - for instance, when studying recorded postings in forums, newsgroups, chat-rooms, e-mails etc. Such pre-understanding cannot be dissociated from bodily existence. But it is in the meantime also true that our bodily existence is pervaded by digital communication devices of all kinds. Not only natural language but particularly online communication are the bearers of human existence. This digital reversal of the Aristotelian definition means that when doing instrument-oriented analysis of online communication, we should make sure that our research recognizes the limits of this approach - and bear in mind the necessity of its unmasking, in case it does not explicitly reflect on its limits. The global and intercultural online dialogue makes this kind of analysis particularly risky: Given the almost instant access to others’ utterances, the possibility of misunderstanding due to different pre-understandings and cultural backgrounds becomes all the more likely since there is no spatio-temporal gap hinting to a possible distance. On a more general note, it might be said that instrument-oriented analysis of language tends to emphasize a kind of mentalism that regards minds as ‘containers’ that exchange their ‘contents’ via language. This form of mentalism can be particularly misleading in the case of an encounter with a culture that doesn’t value the containment metaphor of mind at all (cf. Peters, 1999).

c) Online Consent and Confidentiality

The "Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine" approved by the Council of Europe in Oviedo 1997 states in Article 5 as a "general rule" that

An intervention in the health field may only be carried out after the person concerned has given free and informed consent to it.

This person shall beforehand be given appropriate information as to the purpose and nature of the intervention as well as on its consequences and risks.

The person concerned may freely withdraw consent at any time. (Council of Europe 1997)

The principle of informed consent is thus related not only to the human body as research object but also to the kind of consent to be obtained, namely "free and informed". There is no specification concerning the medium of this consent - but it is implicitly related to a face-to-face situation. Of course, genetic tests are not immediately comparable to online research on human subjects, but it is obvious that the results of such tests may be digitized and analyzed within different contexts and with different purposes as the ones included in the informed consent. At the same time, we should be aware that a written informed request remains in many cases, particularly if done in developing countries, a pure formality - and we can expect that abuses will be sanctioned either in the country itself or in the original country where the company using the tests is located. This gives rise to double morality. In other words, an international forum as well as international standards are needed together with local control.

Beyond this borderline situation between bodily data and their digital manipulation, we are confronted with the basic phenomenon of the fragility of human existence. What does it mean to give a free and informed consent? It presupposes a situation in which another person is doing something on my behalf that may have existential and, in this case, bodily consequences. Online communication researchers may consider the specific situation in which they should submit their research to the principle of informed consent not only in cases where this may concern bodily data — in these cases the principle should be applied — but also in cases in which their analysis may infringe upon the bodily and/or digital existential projects of other people.

One of the main problems of online communication is the question of confidentiality. The concept of trust is deeply rooted in Western metaphysics as the question concerning the grounds of knowledge, starting with the search for archai or prima principia. Descartes looked for a solution to modern empirical uncertainty in subjectivity as a fundamentum inconcussum, an unquestionable and solid foundation. Modern digital technology partly bears this heritage, particularly when it is seen from a mathematical perspective. That is, as digital technology ultimately rests on pure and simple binary code, it thereby grounds itself on the mathematical - i.e., what for Descartes was the sole source of certain knowledge beyond the bare certainty of self-existence. But, as we have seen, as online communication researchers we are dealing with a borderline phenomenon that is situated at the interface of mathematics, the electromagnetic medium and — human existence.

We are aware that trust in oral societies was supported by different kinds of institutions, rites, exclusions, formulas etc. This was also the case as writing became a leading medium of human communication, particularly since the invention of printing. Online communication has been mainly a written phenomenon, but this situation is changing dramatically with regard multimedia. In more general terms, online communication has brought about a renaissance of oral culture, although the Internet in its early years has been a written medium. E-mail, forums, and chats have clearly oral dimensions, independently of its (until now) written form. The examples of Internet-TV, Internet-Radio, Internet-Telephone, Mobile-Internet, etc., make the orality of Internet culture unmistakable.

But what, then, about online trust? The basic ethical challenge concerns the tension between freedom and surveillance. As in the case of censorship in the printing epoch, the state aims at protecting citizens from what is supposed to be harmful to them. Netizens are aware of new kinds of state control. While cryptography is a main instrument for protecting online freedom in that it enforces privacy where no convention or legal means can guarantee it, the typical ‘netiquette’ attitude also contains elements of openness, sharing, and helpfulness towards the ‘newbies’. Online communication researchers may consider one of their greatest ethical challenges to be the creation of an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual support as propagated, for example, by the open source movement, which quite naturally implies sharing some of the results with the people who were subjected to the research.

Prospects: US vs European Ethics of Research Approaches?

Europe, and particularly Germany, has a long tradition of protecting personal data. At the same time, it has a tradition in which the power of the state is supposed to play an important role as guarantor and provider of social equity. Both aspects have an impact in the present and future of a European approach to an ethics of Internet research. Researchers may be constrained by data protection laws, while at the same time the State may ask them, particularly in critical situations, to do research that may collide with their views of privacy and individual freedom. This may be also the case in the US where the Freedom of Information Act plays an important role when, as in the case of Communication Decency Act, censorship is supposed to be better than freedom.

In general terms, we may state that prima facie, research ethics in the US follows the utilitarian tradition, while European researchers are rooted in a deontological, particularly Kantian, paradigm. This view may be, on the one hand, at least partially questioned particularly with regard to the bioethics debate. On the other hand, there is a long and strong tradition of computer ethics in the US - but nothing comparable to it in Europe. CEPE and our new international society INSEIT are a platform for starting to think about common ethical standards based on best practices.

In order to create an atmosphere of open international cooperation in our field the tension between these two ethical poles that arise within the Western philosophical tradition should be superseded or, at least, weakened, allowing other groups and societies to express not only their views of what they think is useful for them but also concerning their own values on what is supposed to be (morally) unacceptable.

The study of human actors and their actions within a global digitized network raises similar, but not simply the same kind of questions for social researchers as in the case of traditional empirical methodologies in general, as well as from the standards developed by biomedical research in particular. The reason for this is that the online medium transforms basic aspects of human existence, such as identity, language, confidentiality, that are at the core of any society and that are protected in most countries by local law. Besides the question of creating international legal agreements in this field, online research should seek for making explicit some basic standards of best practice. These should include:

  • the respect for bodily identity as affected by research on digital identity
  • the respect for the interests and values of the people subject to online research, giving them the opportunity of an active and free cooperation
  • the unmasking of abuses with regard to the misuse of instrument-oriented analysis by political and/or private bodies
  • the creation of an atmosphere of social responsibility of online researchers as well as of their patrons with regard to the utility and usability of their research, particularly with regard to the weakest members of society, including whole societies as weakest members or non-members of the online world.
  • online researchers should be aware of their own gender biases within their own culture as well as with regard as to the cultures that are the object of their research.

In other words, online communication research should be guided more by an ethics of care and less by utilitarian and/or deontological premises that may lead either to a purely instrumental or moralist view.


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