The ethical considerations in internet-based research for the Tri-council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010) (TCPS2) are considered in the document Extending the Spectrum: The TCPS and Ethical Issues in Internet-based Research (PDF).
Online Research Not Requiring Ethics Review
Non-intrusive research relying exclusively on publicly available information is exempted from REB review when the information is a) legally accessible to the public and appropriately protected by law; or b) publicly accessible and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy (see TCPS Article 2.2). An example might involve information posted publicly online via Twitter.
However, researchers should be aware that while publicly available, this information may be subject to copyright and/or intellectual property rights.
Ethics Review is Required
There are situations where REB review is required for publicly available information. For example, there are digital sites where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Researchers should bear in mind that internet users do not expect to be research subjects. Individuals participating in online discussion groups cannot be assumed to perceive their information will be used for research purposes. Individuals particpating in discussions on Facebook, for example, may perceive those discussions to be available only to their friends or a select group and in this instance ethics review is required.
Privacy and Confidentiality
The perception of privacy is influenced by a number of factors:
If a registration or subscription is required to gain access to information, then the information is associated with a certain perceived level of privacy.
The number of users influences the perceived level of privacy (e.g. 10 vs. 1000 group members).
Group norms, target audience etc., generally defined by the group and made clear in the FAQ or group description. For example, individuals involved in religious services or practices, or chat rooms on the Internet, may assume that participants and observers will accord the proceedings some degree of privacy.
Cultural concerns - Observing sacred ceremonies without approval from the appropriate individuals or groups (e.g., Elders or traditional knowledge holders in Aboriginal research) and without engaging them about the subsequent use or interpretation of the data may have unintended negative implications (see TCPS, Articles 9.5, 9.6 and 9.8)
When accessing identifiable information in publicly accessible digital sites, such as Internet chat rooms, and self-help groups with restricted membership, the privacy expectation of contributors of these sites is much higher. Researchers shall submit their proposal for REB review (see TCPS Article 10.3
There are also unintended consequences that need to be anticipated and addressed, where possible. For example, in a bulletin board or discussion forum, even one that does not appear to be public, a researcher could have problems protecting the anonymity of participants when using quotes from the forum (despite having promised to do so in the informed consent that the participant signs). It may be that a Google search of the quote could point to the original source on the Internet and point to it, potentially revealing the identity of the participant and thus violating consent if anonymity was promised.
Researchers should also consider issues around age and other factors that may be difficult to verify when using internet research strategies.