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Michael Zimmer, Ph D, is a privacy and Internet ethics scholar.He is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Director of the Center for Information Policy Research.My random thought of the day – originally over a coffee and delicious filled doughnut at my favorite local haunt – was how differently we treat the emotionally loaded words ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ in kink.In M/f relationships there are obviously some people who like to roleplay actual father/daughter relationships.Not to fan the flames on the social justice warriors.”I suppose I am one of those “social justice warriors” he's talking about. Rather, we should highlight this episode as one among the growing list of big data research projects that rely on some notion of “public” social media data, yet ultimately fail to stand up to ethical scrutiny.
Numerous posts interrogating the ethical dimensions of the research methodology have been removed from the Open open peer-review forum for the draft article, since they constitute, in Kirkegaard’s eyes, “non-scientific discussion.” (It should be noted that Kirkegaard is one of the authors of the article the moderator of the forum intended to provide open peer-review of the research.) When contacted by Motherboard for comment, Kirkegaard was dismissive, stating he “would like to wait until the heat has declined a bit before doing any interviews.
Their paper reveals that initially they designed a bot to scrape profile data, but that this first method was dropped because it was “a decidedly non-random approach to find users to scrape because it selected users that were suggested to the profile the bot was using.” This implies that the researchers created an Ok Cupid profile from which to access the data and run the scraping bot.
Since Ok Cupid users have the option to restrict the visibility of their profiles to logged-in users only, it is likely the researchers collected—and subsequently released—profiles that were intended to be publicly viewable.
We must reframe the inherent ethical dilemmas in these projects. And we must continue to develop policy guidance focused on the unique challenges of big data studies.
That is the only way can ensure innovative research—like the kind Kirkegaard hopes to pursue—can take place while protecting the rights of people an the ethical integrity of research broadly.