Online Spaces

October 15, 2018

You are a public health researcher who is interested in studying advertising and marketing messages. You’ve noticed that QR codes and URLs are becoming more and more popular on packaging and in advertising. As part of your research, you’d like to follow these QR codes and visit the websites of these companies to study the messages and content on the sites. When you arrive at the site, however, you are asked to enter some personal information: your name, address, birthday, and whether or not you regularly use the product. On some sites, your information will be verified against government records before you are allowed to enter the site.


In addition, most websites have a link at the bottom of the page that leads you to a legal document outlining the rules of accessing and interacting with the site. The terms of service on many sites are quite restrictive.  Most prohibit you from even taking and sharing a screenshot. Terms of Service rarely indicate whether or not the site and its contents can be subject to research. Without explicit reference to research, we don’t know what a researcher is able to do in these heavily and legally restricted spaces.


As the internet becomes increasingly essential to everyday life, and especially to commerce, research on the internet is also essential. IRBs, lawyers, and researchers are working out the best ways to interact with, recruit, and do research with internet users–falling under human subjects research.  But the investigators of Conducting Research in Commercially-Owned Online Space, a 2017-2018 Practical Ethics awardee, aim to clarify the best way to do research on content important to the health of the public that is created by and owned by private, and sometimes powerful, entities.


There is a long tradition of conducting surveillance research in commercial spaces to protect the public’s health and interests.  Research in privately owned brick-and-mortar spaces is commonplace and is bound by both implicit and explicit rules or understandings of who is allowed in the space and for what purpose.  The internet is a world that is being built with great speed, and the ‘space’ is being reserved to serve companies’ objectives. These companies are creating barriers to understanding what is happening in these strategic online spaces. How can such barriers be overcome for the good of the public [or, to protect the public’s health]?


Dr. Katherine Clegg Smith and her collaborators are looking to clearly understand and state the issues at hand—what is the power and scope of a website’s Terms of Service? What must researchers know before conducting descriptive research online? With a better understanding of these issues, researchers and research institutions can work towards finding the best way to conduct research on commercially-owned online spaces.



The Practical Ethics Symposium will be held on November 14 in Feinstone Hall at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Symposium will feature presentations from all of the 2018 awardees of the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics Program. Follow this link for more information and to RSVP to the Symposium.


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