I just happened upon a presentation from an Internet Research Ethics workshop held in October. The presentation, “Blogs: Public, Private, and the ‘Intimsphere’ — a Danish Example,” includes this interesting statement:

From a research ethics perspective, in the United States, research conducted using a blog as a data source would not reviewable by an IRB. For instance, if a researcher used only text from a blog, as part of an analysis, and did not interact with the blog author through, e.g., interviews or surveys, no IRB review or approval would be needed, as it is not considered “human subjects” under the federal definition (45cfr46.102f: “Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains (1) Data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) Identifiable private information.” “Identifiable private information” is “information about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place, and information which has been provided for specific purposes by an individual and which the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public (for example, a medical record).” Therefore, if a researcher is getting data from a blog that is public, then it would not meet the criteria for review as set forth in the US regulatory documents [Charles Ess, “Blogs: Public, Private, and the ‘Intimsphere’ — a Danish Example,” Ethics and Internet Research Commons: Building a Sustainable Future pre-conference workshop, 11th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, 2010.10.20].

Dr. Ess is not declaring blog research an ethics-free zone. He recounts his own blog research in which he made significant efforts to involve the blog participants he observed in his research, to seek their consent, and to protect their privacy.

But this interpretation of Institutional Review Board requirements supports the “public park” analogy: as I put these words on this public blog, I have as little expectation of privacy as if I were standing on a park bench and speaking loudly. Anyone walking by can listen, study what I say, and offer their conclusions about the meaning of my speech.