As an avid forum dweller and otherwise internet junkie, the ethical debate regarding unconsented use of an internet source in research is one which I find I can relate to. Many argue that it is not okay to use internet sources. It violates some of the BPS’ values, such as informed consent (getting in contact with your participant isn’t an easy job in most cases)and the right to withdraw (I’d find it quite difficult to withdraw my data from something I had no knowledge about).
However, as an internet user, one should know that whatever it is they are sharing online is likely to be seen by many other people. That is the essence of the internet, and I think that it is this that researchers need to take into account when deciding whether or not to use a specific internet source in a study. Mann and Stewart (2000) argued that it’s important to distinguish between private and semi-private internet content, such as closed forums (those only available for viewing by registered users) and open forums (content is available for viewing by anyone who visits that webpage). Also, internet users should be aware of a companies ToS if they use a related website. Oftentimes companies will specify that they allow the use of all information on the website for research purposes. By ticking that ToS box, they have given informed consent for their data to be used.
I am of the opinion ‘to each their own’. What we put on the internet is no longer ours in a sense, and it is the responsibility of each individual on the web to know and to understand what that means. Anything which you wouldn’t want the whole entire world to know is not safe on the internet, I believe, is a great way of thinking for any internet user, and would help eliminate any argument on the ethicality of internet sources in research. Prevention is the best cure! =].