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The legal and ethical issues of completing online surveys

I’m not sure about you, but in these times, it seems that a day doesn’t pass by without either a pop-up occurring on a website that I happen to be browsing, asking me if I would complete a survey or an unsolicited post appearing on my Facebook newsfeed making the same request – usually, however, these are cunningly disguised as ‘clickbait’ to a potentially interesting article. Now, probably, if you are like me, you ignore these requests, but there are people out there who do complete them, otherwise why would companies spend so much money writing them and persistently sending them out as part of their endeavours to discover our habits and ‘likes’ so that they can hone their advertising campaign?

But what are the legal and ethical issues of completing these online surveys?

To companies, online surveys present a number of potential benefits:

  • They are a cost-effective way of collecting data,
  • A researcher can potentially access larger numbers of participants who are much more widely spread geographically and,
  • They can be used to reach groups that are more difficult to access using more traditional research methods.
  • To us, the humble participant however, the online survey is something that we should have a healthy wariness of.

    One large area of concern when completing online surveys is personal Internet security. When a company requests that you complete a survey for them, they may also ask you to accept a ‘cookie’ from them. Unfortunately, this is not a tasty chocolate biscuit, but a snippet of code that is generated by the company’s web server and stored on a participant’s computer after they agree to accept the cookie. It then tracks the user’s browsing habits and sends this information back to the company for them to use in their targeted online advertising. This is how Facebook displays adverts and sponsored postings that miraculously all appear to be within user’s areas of interest.

    Another issue with a number of online survey services is that of confidentiality. This is due to the ability to share survey accounts between numerous account holders and therefore a situation could arise whereby you complete one survey attached to an account, but not only can the author of that specific survey see your information, but anyone with access to the account (who may not necessarily be part of that particular survey project) can also see it.

    When completing surveys, it is imperative that any survey provides an introductory page that allows you to specifically state your consent for the information that you offer, as well as clear and concise information about how the data will be used. If this consent is not asked for then, legally, the information cannot be used. The introductory page to a good survey should also give clear and obvious warnings if it covers potentially sensitive areas and should refer to sources of further support and information on the issues.

    Two other areas that participants in surveys should be aware of, is their right to withdrawal and their right to omit certain information. You should always have the ability to exit the survey at any point but you should be aware that any responses up to that point maybe retained. If you don’t wish for this to occur then you could backtrack through the survey and erase any answers you have made. Surveys should always offer you the option of not providing a response to any question, in other words you should not feel pressured or intimidated into thinking that you have got to provide an answer to a question.

    As a consequence of the popularity of online surveys, more people are participating; however, this has caused a rise in the number of people giving false or fraudulent information within surveys. For instance, giving a believable, but false name, may not necessarily cause a problem, but giving incorrect addresses can lead to severe consequences. This is due the common habit of people giving the address of their local shop, school or even the address of their neighbours as their own. If this is discovered, there is a possibility that legal action could be brought against the perpetrator. There is also one survey (although it is not be online at present) that you are legally bound to complete correctly and that is the National Census – complete this fraudulently and, if you are found out, you will be in serious trouble.

    There are also non-legal reasons for not giving false information on surveys. A lot of companies use given details to send out sample products or even to take part in prize draws, so if you give a false name and address you may never benefit from these offers.

    Online surveys are now part of our digital lives and despite being annoying and irritating to some people, it’s unlikely that marketing departments will stop using them in the near future and therefore, it is up to you and I - the digital public, to be savvy about what we should and shouldn’t be presented with when we are requested to complete an online survey.

    Written by Steve Gresty on March 11, 2015 15:17


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