Ethical Challenges When Doing Ethnographic Research With Hard-To-Reach Online Communities


With the emergence of cryptomarkets less than a decade ago, the darknet – a subset of the internet which requires anonymizing software to get access to its hidden services – has created unprecedented opportunities for conducting research on hard-to-reach communities often infringing criminal law. The public visibility of criminal activity on the darknet contradicts offline illicit behaviour, which is often characterised as clandestine and secret. Instead, on cryptomarkets users combine anonymizing software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to share information and exchange goods on illicit markets and simultaneously conceal personal data. This has repercussions for the police as law enforcement interventions are complicated. While previous scholarship on ethics of internet research has considered the balance between the rights of human subjects with the benefits of research, it has not addressed those issues in the context of anonymous online spaces. Such spaces protect both research participants and researchers when making ethical decisions by disconnecting the individual's identity from publicly available information. This paper reflects on the ethical challenges arising when doing digital ethnographic research on hard-to-reach online communities. It poses a number of specific questions, including: Should cryptomarkets and associated discussion forums be regarded as public or private spaces? When should informed consent be obtained from participants in advance of data collection? Should the researcher provide full contact details on the information sheet? In addressing these questions, the paper will explore ambiguities in the concepts of privacy, safety and anonymity in relation to the fundamental ethical principle of minimizing harm.


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Contributed date

May 28, 2020 - 3:56am

Critical Commentary

This is an abstract for the EASST/4S 2020 open panel "Digital Experiments in the Making: Methods, Tools, and Platforms in the Infrastructuring of STS".

Cite as

Meropi Tzanetakis - University of Vienna, "Ethical Challenges When Doing Ethnographic Research With Hard-To-Reach Online Communities", contributed by Lina Franken, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 28 May 2020, accessed 16 June 2024.