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This is a follow-up to this question, which I ask due to debates arising in the comments. While I ask it in the first person to keep things simple, it is not based on a real experience of mine.

One of the students in my course shares a last name with another person, I depend on (say a supervisor or teacher of my own courses). This name is not very common, so I suspect that they are related and I have a conflict of interest.

It is acceptable that I look up the student’s name on the Internet to find out whether they are actually related? I am not talking about an intensive search here, just what is publicly and directly available on social media and similar.

My current thought about this is:

  • If I do not investigate or find out that they are related, I would report a conflict of interest.

  • If I find out that there is no connection, there is no conflict of interest and I save all the time of the above step.

  • If I do nothing, I may be accused of knowing (or suspecting) the connection and having a conflict of interest afterwards. So this is not an option for me.

I am mainly interested in the ethics of the situation. Assume that there are no official rules covering the situation. Some commenters on the question linked above considered this stalking.

  • 2
    Just out of curiosity, why not simply ask one of them? – DSVA Aug 16 '18 at 20:01
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    @DSVA: Arguments against this were brought up in answers to the other question. Briefly: You could to disclose confidential information or impose unnecessary pressure onto them. – Wrzlprmft Aug 16 '18 at 20:04
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First of all, let’s get something out of the way. You, and me, and everyone reading this, has on occasion googled the name of someone we know - a friend, colleague, student, professor or whatever - to see if we can find out more about them. Some of us do it more frequently than others, and some of us are fine doing it out of sheer curiosity while others feel a need to rationalize their behavior with arguments about trying to avoid conflicts of interest... but all of us do it. So, if it’s “stalking”, then everyone’s a stalker, and the word “stalking” ceases to have any meaning. Which would be a shame, since there are in fact genuine stalkers out there, and it’s sadly necessary to have a word to describe their behavior.

Now, getting to your specific question: you ask about ethics, but this simply isn’t an ethics issue. You can ethically google whomever you want whenever you want. It’s what you do with the information you obtain once you have it that may or may not be ethical. It may also be inadvisable to google your students, or generally to develop the habit of googling lots of people, for reasons unrelated to ethics. Personally I try to keep my people-googling to a minimum so that I don’t walk around feeling that I’m a nosy person who gets into other people’s business that doesn’t concern me. (I also worry that I might find something I would be better off not knowing, and then I’ll have to either pretend that I don’t know it, or admit to the person that I know it because I googled them - pretty awkward either way...). In any case, I don’t think it’s unethical, and if you feel like you have some good reason to do it, I think it’s perfectly fine.

  • Interestingly your reasons unrelated to ethics are what I would consider ethical reasons. You are concerned about making the other person (and yourself) feel uncomfortable, i.e., avoiding harm to others and yourself. You are not arguing with standards, technical reasons, etc. It may not “heavy” ethics because the stakes are low, but it’s still ethics. (Also see this Meta discussion.) – Wrzlprmft Aug 17 '18 at 9:22
  • @Wrzlprmft interesting meta discussion, thanks. I guess I’m on the side of those who don’t consider any question about interpersonal relations to be related to ethics. For example, seeing your comment pick at my logic caused me a momentary discomfort. Should we then have a debate about whether your comment was unethical? No, I don’t think that would make sense... It’s like what I said about “stalking” - when a word is used in such a loose sense that it starts applying to almost everyone or everything, it loses much of its meaning and usefulness. Let’s leave “ethics” for more serious things. – Dan Romik Aug 17 '18 at 15:56
  • To clarify, in my comment above, “don’t consider any question ... to be related to ethics” should be “don’t consider every question ... to be necessarily related to ethics”. Some such questions are, of course, related to ethics. – Dan Romik Aug 17 '18 at 20:13
  • For example, seeing your comment pick at my logic caused me a momentary discomfort. Should we then have a debate about whether your comment was unethical? – We don’t need to have a debate. However, your potential discomfort being outweighed by the benefit of having this debate was an ethical conclusion. I do not make this ethical decision for every single comment (I once made this long ago), but we can consider the ethics of posting critical comments this way. – Wrzlprmft Aug 29 '18 at 22:28
  • I guess I’m on the side of those who don’t consider any question about interpersonal relations to be necessarily related to ethics. – I do not claim that every question about interpersonal relations is about ethics either. For example, one might ask how to convey a rejection in the least hurtful manner. This question has a clear goal (minimize suffering of the student) that is not finding the most ethical choice. Whoever asks such a question has already made the ethical decision to invest time for the benefit of the rejected and this is not up for debate. – Wrzlprmft Aug 29 '18 at 22:30
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I'd report a conflict of interest based on my speculation about the unusual name, without doing any internet searching at all (which would be inconclusive, anyway). This avoids the risk of stalking, while accurately expressing (to your higher-up) your concern, and not leaving you vulnerable to later accusations of having acted on some conflict-of-interest motivation (since you reported your concern).

So, in brief, I'd think it is unnecessary to do any such internet search as you propose.

Given that lack of necessity, if one would nevertheless like to find out more about one's students, that does verge on stalking ... even though perhaps the object of one's interest never knows about it... and it could be argued that indulging in web searches regarding some of your students (how do you choose...?) prejudices your treatment of students.

So, best to not do it. Just report your concern, without snooping.

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