Research Overview

(For a full record of all research activities, please download my CV here)

With a background in new media and Internet studies, the philosophy of technology, and information ethics, my primary research focuses on the ethical dimensions of new media and information technologies.

My current research falls under these general (and non-exclusive) headings:

Past (although not completely mothballed) projects focused on:

  • Search Engines
  • Vehicle Safety Communication Technologies
  • Dissertation

Privacy

My interest in privacy is rooted in early conversations and projects under the guidance of Helen Nissenbaum. Much of my privacy work centers on Nissenbaum’s theory of contextual integrity, its usefulness for reframing how we think about privacy in our contemporary information ecosystem, and its application in various technological contexts. I also explore challenges to privacy online, privacy in public, and intellectual privacy.

Selected publications & presentations:

  • Zimmer, M., & Hoffmann, A. (in press). Privacy, Context, and Oversharing: Reputational Challenges in a Web 2.0 World. In H. Masum & M. Tovey (Eds.), The Reputation Society: How Online Opinions are Reshaping the Offline World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Zimmer, M. (2011). Privacy Protection in the Next Digital Decade: “Trading Up” or a “Race to the Bottom”? In B. Szoka & A. Marcus (Eds.), The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet (pp. 477-482). Washington, DC: TechFreedom
  • Zimmer, M. (2009). Privacy on the Roads: Mobility, Vehicle Safety Communication Technologies, and the Contextual Integrity of Personal Information Flows. In D. Matheson (Ed.), Contours of Privacy (pp. 219-240). Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Zimmer, M. (2008) The Externalities of Search 2.0: The Emerging Privacy Threats when the Drive for the Perfect Search Engine meets Web 2.0, First Monday, 13(3).
  • Zimmer, M. (2008). Privacy on Planet Google: Using the Theory of “Contextual Integrity” to Clarify the Privacy Threats of Google’s Quest for the Perfect Search Engine. Journal of Business & Technology Law, 3(1), 109-126.
  • Zimmer, M. (2005). Surveillance, privacy and the ethics of vehicle safety communication technologies. Ethics and Information Technology, 7(4), 201-210.

Social Networking & Web 2.0

My interest in privacy naturally led to critiques of the information sharing practices and policies related to the emergence of online social networking and Web 2.0. Much of my work has focused, naturally, on Facebook, but extends to other Web 2.0 applications and platforms.

Selected publications & presentations:

  • Zimmer, M., & Hoffmann, A. (in press). Privacy, Context, and Oversharing: Reputational Challenges in a Web 2.0 World. In H. Masum & M. Tovey (Eds.), The Reputation Society: How Online Opinions are Reshaping the Offline World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Zimmer, M. (2010). “The Laws of Social Networking, or, How Facebook Feigns Privacy.” Presented at Association of Internet Researchers Conference, Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • Zimmer, M. (2009). Renvois of the past, present and future: hyperlinks and the structuring of knowledge from the Encyclopédie to Web 2.0. New Media & Society, 11(1&2), 107-125.
  • Zimmer, M. (2008) The Externalities of Search 2.0: The Emerging Privacy Threats when the Drive for the Perfect Search Engine meets Web 2.0, First Monday, 13(3).
  • Zimmer, M. (2008) Preface: Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0, First Monday, 13(3).

Library 2.0

Even before joining a library and information science school, I started to engage in research examining the implications of the introduction of web-based tools and services in library settings — commonly referred to as Library 2.0 — and its impact on ethical issues such as patron privacy and intellectual freedom. This research area also extends into large-scale digitization projects like Google Book Search and general data retention and surveillance practices within library settings.

Selected publications & presentations:

  • Zimmer, M. (2010). “The Google Books Settlement: Preserving Intellectual Freedom in the Face of Googlization.” Talk presented at Wisconsin Association of Academic Librarians conference, Milwaukee, WI.
  • Zimmer, M. (2009). “Thoughts on Privacy and the Google Book Settlement: What’s At Stake, Why We Need to Advocate, and What We Can Do.” Talk presented at The Google Books Settlement and the Future of Information Access conference, UC-Berkeley School of Information, Berkeley, CA.
  • Zimmer, M. (2009). “Library 2.0, Access to Knowledge & Patron Privacy: Avoiding a Faustian Bargain.” Talk presented at Library 2.0 Symposium, , Yale Law School, New Haven, CT.

Internet Research Ethics

Recently I have become more interested in the ethical dimensions of Internet research methodologies, focusing on concerns about methods of retrieving data from Internet-based sources, expectations of privacy, and the challenge of ensuring IRBs understand the complexities of this domain.

Funded research:

Selected publications & presentations:

  • Zimmer, M. (2010). “But the data is already public”: On the ethics of research in Facebook. Ethics and Information Technology, 12(4), 313-325.
  • Zimmer, M. (2010). “Research Ethics in the 2.0 Era: Conceptual Gaps for Ethicists, Researchers, IRBs.” Presentation before the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP), Office for Human Research Protections, Washington, DC.
  • Zimmer, M. (2010). “Subject Privacy and the Release of the Tastes, Ties, and Time Dataset.” Presented at Workshop on Revisiting Research Ethics in the Facebook Era: Challenges in Emerging CSCW Research, Computer Supported Cooperative Work Conference, Savannah, GA.

Values-In-Design

Early in my PhD coursework I enrolled in Helen Nissenbaum’s course “Values Embodied in Information and Communications Systems,” which introduced me to the notion that  information technologies are a crucial medium for asserting social, political, and moral values, and we must work to ensure these values are considered in the initial design of technology, not merely retrofitted after completion and deployment. Ever since, I’ve tried to ensure pragmatic engagement with design communities in support of value-conscious design remained a central focus of my research agenda.

Selected publications & presentations:

  • Manders-Huits, N., & Zimmer, M. (in press). Values and pragmatic action: The challenges of engagement with technical communities in support of value-conscious design. In S. Vaughn, E. Felton, and O. Zelenko (Eds.), Design & Ethics: Reflections on Practice. Routledge.
  • Manders-Huits, N., & Zimmer, M. (2009). Values and Pragmatic Action: The Challenges of Introducing Ethical Intelligence in Technical Design Communities, International Review of Information Ethics, 10, 37-44.
  • Zimmer, M. (2005). “Media Ecology and Value Sensitive Design: A Combined Approach to Understanding the Biases of Media Technology.” Presented at Media Ecology Association Conference, New York, NY.

Dissertation

Zimmer, M. (2007). The Quest for the Perfect Search Engine: Values, Technical Design, and the Flow of Personal Information in Spheres of Mobility. Unpublished Dissertation, New York University.

 

The freedom to move through both physical and intellectual space resonates within many of the fundamental values and aspirations of American culture, including free and open inquiry, personal autonomy, and liberty. These values are articulated in various spheres where freedom of mobility – both physical and intellectual – is typically enjoyed, ranging from the open highways, public libraries, and the Internet. New information and communication technologies are frequently designed to foster increased mobility within these spheres. Web search engines, for example, have emerged as a vital and increasingly ubiquitous tool for the successful navigation of the growing online informational sphere. As Google puts it, the goal is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and to create the “perfect search engine” that would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.

While intended to enhance intellectual mobility, this dissertation will reveal that the quest for the perfect search engine is actually a Faustian bargain: While designed to foster increased navigation within our spheres of mobility, the search for the perfect search engine also empowers the widespread capture of personal information flows across the Internet. Drawing from historical examples from other spheres of mobility – including vehicle tracking systems, library surveillance, and DRM – the dissertation will argue that the drive for the perfect search engine constitutes a violation of the contextual integrity of personal information flows, restricting the ability to engage in social, cultural, and intellectual activities online free from answerability and oversight, thereby limiting users’ full realization of the levels of autonomy, self-determination, and self-definition traditionally afforded within our spheres of mobility.

Working within the methodological framework of value-conscious design, this dissertation will engage in a conceptual investigation of the relevant values that might be supported or diminished by the design of the perfect search engine, as well as a technical investigation of the design features of the perfect search engine itself, thereby contributing to future pragmatic attempts to design the perfect search engine in order to protect the values traditionally enjoyed in our spheres of mobility.