Is facebook public?

OK, next.

NY Times article of a few days ago has me extremely interested on how this will pan out from an ethics perspective. New technological tool, new forum for conducting academic research, right? So here we have Facebook, the ultimate in social networking and a new means for data collection from participants unknowingly.

At my institution, participants are required to be thoroughly notified if “an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains (1) data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) identifiable private information.” This, of course, is the case with Facebook. Any researcher who uses Facebook information fulfills both 1 and 2 above.

The article presents this “gray” area:

Although federal rules govern academic study of human subjects, universities, which approve professors’ research methods, have different interpretations of the guidelines. “The rules were made for a different world, a pre-Facebook world,” said Samuel D. Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who uses Facebook to explore perception and identity. “There is a rule that you are allowed to observe public behavior, but it’s not clear if online behavior is public or not.”

Hmmm. is it or not? At least one institution has decided to make this black & white:

Indiana University appears to have one of the stricter policies. Its Web site states that the university will not approve academic research without permission from social networking sites or specific individuals.

As a researcher, yeah, it would be nice to skip the red tape and claim it’s gray, but on Facebook, I’m not convinced that it is public behavior…is it? What do you think?