August 17, 2006

the ethics of the AOL search data disclosure

I really thought there would be more discussion about the ethical issues around people's use of the AOL search data. Ironically, the only place I have seen this come up is on gossip blog Valleywag (AOL creepy user watch, volume 14: Think of the advocates!). Valleywag, lonely guardian of ethical principles -- what's up with that?

VW points to the WashPo's article AOL Search Queries Open Window Onto Users' Worlds as an exploration of "the ethical dilemma of those who were against these records being released but had such a need to sift through them". Heh funny VW, but painfully on point. Too bad the Post reporters buried the lede in the fourth graf, and then only obliquely criticized the marginal ethics and voyeurism of the examples they cited.

For those of us that don't get to see search logs every day, the novelty and attendant curiosity/nosiness factor of the AOL data were compelling. It's a fascinating story about the human condition, and it surely paid off in traffic and ad clicks for those that reported it. It's not at all surprising that people wanted to know all of the shocking details, we seem to have an unlimited appetite for this sort of thing. But there's a lot about this story that should have raised red flags of an ethical nature, and mostly that doesn't seem to have happened.

So let's make a list of questions regarding the ethics of the AOL search case:

Was it ethical for the AOL researchers to use the data for their research?
Since they maintained end user anonymity in their published results, they are probably okay. One might prefer that the researchers themselves did not have access to end user identities, but this is a gray area. Strictly speaking, one might also wish for informed consent by the subjects of the research e.g., AOL's users, but well, they signed their data away in the AOL data privacy agreement. And gosh, that would be hard to get anyway ;-)

Was it ethical for them to publish the data on the Net?
Given the specificity of the data and the clear potential for identification of individuals, this was clearly an ethical lapse.

Was it ethical for people like me to download the data?
Since a representative of AOL purposefully made it publicly available, it is hard to see a problem with this. Although, my own reaction was "I can't believe they are actually doing this, I better grab it before they take it down", so maybe I shoulda knowed better ;-)

Was it ethical for people that had the data to keep it after AOL took the original data down and issued a strongly worded apology?
Although AOL did not ask this, at this point a strongly ethical person might have decided to delete the data. Should probably have, actually.

Was it ethical to make the data openly available in a searchable form?
Not in my universe. Other folks and other opinions may exist in parallel universes, however.

Was it ethical for people to use the data to publicly identify individuals?
Pretty marginal in my view. You can make a case for doing this with the legitimate purposes of reporting news or demonstrating how bad the disclosure was. But in retrospect, the NYT's disclosure of Thelma Arnold's identity appears sensationalistic and unbecoming. Same goes for the WashPo, which couldn't resist outing JoAnn Whitman in their own article about ethical dilemmas.

Is it ethical for people to continue to use the AOL data for journalistic, research, and commercial purposes?
AOL's readme that went out with the data stated "This collection is distributed for NON-COMMERCIAL RESEARCH USE ONLY. Any application of this collection for commercial purposes is STRICTLY PROHIBITED." So the intent was clear. Are you still crunching the data for SEO or for a news story? Do you sell ads next to your articles? Then you're on the wrong side of this one. If you're doing academic research on it, you're on the wrong side too; remember AOL pulled it down and said it was a mistake. You can't publish results derived from the data, because you no longer have permission to use it.

Well that's my take on it anyway. (:dismounts high horse). I'm interested to hear other opinions on this.

Posted by Gene at August 17, 2006 3:13 PM | TrackBack