According to the NESH's Guidelines, researchers can in general use material from open forums freely without obtaining consent from the parties covered by the information (point 8). This must always be balanced against the requirement of respect for individuals' privacy and close relationships (point 13). It may be difficult to distinguish between the private and the public arenas in relation to information about behaviour that is disseminated and stored on the Internet. Researchers must therefore remember that there may be a difference between what people view as private and what technically is publicly-available information about people's use, communication, production and interaction.
For example, a researcher may freely use information from online newspapers' coverage of a case. In other situations, however, the distinction between the private and the public spheres may be less clear. One reason is that individuals who publish information on the Internet themselves may regard the information as private, even though it is technically publicly-available. Others may be of the view that the information is public, while also having strong reservations against the information being used by others in new settings and contexts, such as research. Some people view a personal blog as a public arena, while others consider the blog as publicly-available, but with private content. Different participants on an Internet forum may have differing views of what is private and public, and their patterns of communication and behaviour will be influenced by this view. Researchers have special responsibility for safeguarding the research subjects' integrity. In many situations, much can be gained by taking the "integrity of the context" into consideration: the context in which the information or communication takes place is important when assessing what is private and what is public. Researchers must not assume that all Internet users have a conscious view of or knowledge of which information will actually be made public and which information will not be made public.
This applies particularly, but not exclusively, to the use of social media, where the degree of publicness and users' ability to set personal data settings and publish location data varies.
Some Internet forums restrict access. Information provided here is not clearly public or private, but because the forum is not open to everyone, it cannot simply be used for research purposes without the researcher obtaining the consent of the subjects. The stricter the forum's restrictions on access, both in terms of the opportunity to acquire information/communication and the opportunity to participate in the forum, the greater the participants' expectations of protection or anonymity. Researchers must be aware of the access requirements of the forum being studied and how strict they are. Researchers must show greater care when there is stricter access restriction.