Colleges shouldn’t toss social media terms of service

Ignoring these often overlooked agreements could be troublesome for your institution

“Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.”

This rallying cry against the “let’s do as we always did” approach has helped the digital professionals take their seat at the decision table in many institutions. Yet this unorthodox advice may have been embraced too literally in the social media field. It’s no wonder that some enthusiastic and well-meaning social media managers still break basic rules with the institutional accounts they oversee.

Not concerned because you already have a social media policy? Most of these policies were designed to provide a framework for acceptable ways to use these new platforms. They were developed as an extension of the web policy—which itself was created as an addendum to the IT policy.

They are meant to delineate and regulate areas of responsibility between the institution and its employees. They usually don’t cover the terms of service (TOS) of the social media platforms.

Your social media policy and the platforms’ TOS have different purposes.

Why do so many social media professionals—along with millions of regular users—ignore the TOS governing the use of their professional and personal social media accounts? The answer is that TOS agreements are complicated and take considerable time to read and understand. While researching a conference presentation on the topic, I spent 19 hours reading the TOS of eight different platforms—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest. Not only were these documents long (a total of 103,000 words), but they were written by lawyers, for lawyers. (See the TOS agreements for each of these services in the online version of this article.)

You don’t need a law degree to understand their gist. The TOS typically include use and privacy policies, do’s and don’ts as well as some practical guidelines to act as a good social media user or advertiser.

By creating and using institutional accounts on a given platform, your institution, represented by the social media account manager, agrees to comply with all the rules and provisions listed in the TOS. It’s there that you’ll learn how to avoid getting your account suspended or terminated, what happens to the content you post, and what data of yours is collected, used or sold to advertisers or other third parties.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to cover all the important points of the social media TOS in this column. That’s why they need to be required reading for your social media go-to person on campus. Yet, everybody should be aware of two popular issues for higher education: privacy and copyrights.


All the platforms have a privacy policy—with the exception of Facebook, which calls it “data use policy.” This is where they describe what data they collect, how long they store it, how they use it and what you can do about it.

Hidden in plain sight in these documents is the use of sharing icons on third-party websites as tracking beacons. If you didn’t log out of your social media account before visiting a site that allows you to share content by clicking on a social media icon, your visit to the site will be logged—even if you don’t share anything.

This practice is at the center of a European class-action suit launched in August 2014 against Facebook. The suit was filed on the grounds that the practice doesn’t comply with European privacy laws.


Infringement of written posts is difficult to litigate. But it’s a different story for photos (selfies included), infographics or videos uploaded or reposted on your institution’s social media accounts, all of which are automatically protected by copyright laws.

That’s why TOS agreements assume that you are the copyright holder of any files you upload to their servers or have obtained permission to do so. If the rightful owner files a take-down request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, your institution may get into trouble.

A single mistake usually won’t lead to account termination, but a third would be the last. Moreover, the TOS specifies that any legal action resulting from copyright violation on your social media account will be your responsibility and yours alone.

Privacy and copyright are just the tip of the social media TOS iceberg—an iceberg that savvy social media practitioners in higher education can’t ignore anymore.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations and technologies. She is also the founder of


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