Netnography: Ethical And Legal Concerns.


I am often asked to explain netnography in relation to its ethical and legal concerns, so I have written this article to help clarify some key points. Kozinets (2009) defines netnography as a form of ethnographic research adapted to include the internet’s influence on contemporary social worlds. He goes on to list six steps that researchers should consider when embarking on this activity: research planning, entrée, data collection, interpretation, ensuring ethical standards and research representation.

First and foremost, ethical consideration should not be the fifth step in the netnographic process. You need to gain ethical approval at stage one, i.e., the research planning phase. It is my belief that Kozinets uses stage five only as means to remind us of the importance of ensuring ethical standards are maintained. Next, I must remind the reader that the concept of netnography can be split into 4 sub-sets:
  • Symbolic, which are the actions (posts on the site(s) under investigation) that expresses or seems to express an intention or feeling.
  • Digital, which is the study of the nature of value and valuation. It connects statistical data analysis with cultural understandings and meaning. It also encompasses a large amount of social data, where the researcher works towards driving toward deeper cultural understanding, rather than just statistical trends.
  • Humanist, which focuses on research questions with deep social importance. This could fall into the social marketing domain (not to be confused with social media marketing).
  • Auto-netnography, this is when the researcher moves away from being an observer to a participator, i.e., asking questions of the users or contributing in the debate.
None of the above are mutually exclusive, so a study could include all four elements. There are however, distinct ethical considerations to factor in. First, if you embark on any form of auto-netnography then informed consent is required. This is because the Code of Human Research Ethics Principles state that valid informed consent from participants is required when any research is ensued, which must also give them the right to withdraw, provide confidentiality and anonymity, ensure fair treatment, and preserve their rights for privacy.
Now, if you utilise a voyeuristic approach then informed consent is not required. This is only valid if the observations take place only in public situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers (see BPS code of ethics page 6). To clarify this in a digital context: you do not need the permission to do research on Twitter because the individuals tweeting expect strangers to view the content (if the individual was tweeting in closed / protected group then you would need consent). In general, if you can access the data without needing to log in then you don’t need informed consent. The caveat here is that the people and the group being reviewed must remain anonymous (if the group is known then risk of not remaining anonymous increases). So, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest can be researched without consent. Forums and chatrooms are not as clear cut, most will allow non-registered readers the opportunity of reading threads without logging in, so in theory you could do a netnographic study on the individuals without obtaining consent but because these are much smaller in size, if you name the forum (or even indicate what the core subject is) then the risk of individuals not remaining anonymous increases, so I advocate gaining informed consent and permission to carry out research from the forum’s owners.
What happens if I want my research to be on celebrities or politicians? Well, I have trawled the internet and there was no explicit advice on how this should be done (specifically from bodies like the British Psychological Society and the Market Research Society). I have however seen some universities saying that informed consent is not needed from these individuals. This advice leaves me with a moral dilemma, by accepting such a stance you immediately advocate the removal of that individual’s basic human rights, a proposition that I am completely uncomfortable with. Privacy is a fundamental human right, so informed consent must be obtained. I accept that this stance is contentious as the debate about public officials (primarily politicians in office) still continues. I would argue that research on the actions of an official carrying out their public duties is acceptable but not on their private lives: the courts have not made it easy by failing to clarify the position. Ultimately it will be your research ethics committee that makes the final decision.   
The next thing to consider is the legal implications, in the UK the question of privacy is linked to the Data Protection Act 1998 (there are similar privacy laws across the world). You need to familiarise yourself with these, and as long as confidentiality is maintained then the risk of breaches becomes minimal. It should be noted that much of the sentiment in the Data Protection Act 1998 is covered in the Code of Human Research Ethics. But that focus is all about individuals, what happens if you want to carry out research on a legal entity (i.e., a company or trademark), well the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct provides a good framework. 
In general, if you are going to carry out research on a company or brand (i.e., a trademark) then permission is required. This will reduce the risk of litigation (it does not eliminate it, as much depends on what you write), it also satisfies the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct requirements. What if the trademark in question is only being used ‘incidentally’ i.e., you are reviewing consumer’s perceptions of a brand’s country of origin. Well, strictly speaking permission is still required but there is a defence known as ‘Fair Use’ or ‘Fair Dealing’ of trademarks. In the US it is accepted that academic non-commercial research can use the names without consent but there is no specific clause in UK or European law. UK copyright law does however accept such a defence as long as an acknowledgement is made. Just remember that acknowledgements in text using Harvard or APA formats will include the trademark (which could be a solution to the anomaly). That said, I am not aware of any organisations taking Universities to court over research outputs, but that’s not to say they won’t if the research is contentious.
So, that’s all I want to say for now, I want to end by confirming that I am not a lawyer and the above are only my thoughts and considerations of the subject in question. If you are concern, then you should seek legal advice. Also, it will be the decision of your own research ethics committee on accepting or rejecting your proposed studies.   
Reference List.
Kozinets, R. (2009). Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications
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Dr Alan Shaw is a Senior Lecturer and Marketing consultant focusing on a range of sectors. His main interests are in strategy development, social marketing, digital marketing, advertising, consumer behaviour and marketing application.
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