Building Social Media Collections: Legal and Ethical Issues

2 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2016 Last revised: 24 Dec 2016

Date Written: March 31, 2016


Social media is an increasingly prevalent method of communication. The information disseminated through these platforms is by nature ephemeral and at risk of loss. This has led institutions to build social media collections for posterity. The value of preserving social media for research purposes is increasingly important, yet significant legal and ethical issues must be addressed to make such collections viable.

While there is ample scholarly discourse on legal issues in web archiving, the same is not true for the newer sub-field of social media archiving. Absence of statutory provisions and direct judicial precedent defining the legality of such collections led us to survey the potential legal and ethical issues that institutions may encounter when preserving social media for long-term access.

We will present a poster showing some of the legal and analytical research we have done, focusing especially on the various Terms of Use for each social media platform, legal transfer documents such as Deed of Gifts and general archival theory and practice.

Three issues were found to be most pertinent: (i) Copyright (ii) Privacy and (iii) Access. While copyright is solely a legal issue, privacy and access also have ethical paradigms to them.

Any institution building a social media collection must bypass the legal hurdle of copyright. Risk assessment would vary depending upon the nature of the social media content being harvested. For this, platform specific analysis for Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr was undertaken due to the varying level of creativity of content uploaded to these platforms. Applicability of the fair use exception was also ascertained.

Our research on privacy delved into whether institutions had a right to harvest social media content simply because it was found in the public domain. If they did, were they required to impose any access restrictions to these collections?

Analysis of judicial precedents indicates that users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their publicly posted social media content. Hence, we inferred that harvesting it for research purposes was legally permissible. However, the ethical conundrum transgressing into the sphere of archival theory and practice prevails.

Specific legal needs of archives related to harvesting deleted social media content, access in contravention of Terms of Use and long term preservation were also ascertained.

Our research indicates that while the legal framework for creating a social media archive is strong, ethically it is on murky grounds calling for all stakeholders in the community to brainstorm.

This research has been supported by the National Historical Publications and Records grant funded project to develop Social Feed Manager (SFM) – an application developed by the George Washington University Libraries to collect and preserve social media records. However neither are the findings of this research endorsed by the University nor do they reflect the University’s official policy on building a social media archive.

Keywords: Copyright Law, Fair Use, Terms of Service, Privacy, Access

JEL Classification: K10, K11, K304

Suggested Citation

Sharma, Seemantani, Building Social Media Collections: Legal and Ethical Issues (March 31, 2016). TPRC 44: The 44th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy 2016. Available at SSRN: or

Seemantani Sharma (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

No Address Available

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics