Social Media

Why you really should read those terms of service

Terms of Service

Standard terms-of-service agreements for social media sites often conflict with federal law and agency needs.

When the General Services Administration on Jan. 8 announced a government-wide terms-of-service agreement with Pinterest, some agencies had been on the photo-sharing site for months. So what’s wrong with federal offices simply agreeing to a site’s standard terms?

Simply put, because most free social media products are “incompatible with federal law, regulation or practice,” said GSA spokeswoman Jackeline Stewart. Federal agencies that make use of new platforms without negotiating an alternative terms-of-service agreement risk legal headaches, copyright issues and an assortment of other problems.

Several years ago, when many agencies embraced social media platforms such as Facebook without amended terms-of-service agreements, it led to disputes over content ownership and other issues. GSA has helped ease confusion in recent years by developing a terms-of-service template that highlights common concerns for agencies and suggests ways to resolve them.

The negotiated amendment to Pinterest’s terms of service, for example, acknowledge that “Agency and user-generated content may meet the definition of Federal records,” and could require “transfer of permanently valuable records to NARA in a format and manner acceptable to NARA at the time of transfer.” The standard terms of service, by comparison, state that Pinterest “may retain your User Content for a commercially reasonable period of time for backup, archival, or audit purposes,” but provide no guarantee that content could be exported. There are also provisions altering legal jurisdiction, ownership of usernames, and other issues.

So far, GSA has helped negotiate 62 fed-friendly agreements, of which the Pinterest deal is the most recent.

“Centrally negotiated terms of service reduce duplication across the government and minimize the work needed for individual agencies to get up and running on these social media platforms,” Stewart said.

Nevertheless, federal entities are not required to create amended terms-of-service agreements with social media providers before using them.

For instance, several branches of the military began using Pinterest in early 2012, said Brittany Brown, social media manager at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. The Army has been taking advantage of Pinterest to “share Army messages without the American public having to read a long article or press release written from an operational perspective with lots of acronyms.”

From the beginning, she said the Army has been careful to avoid copyright issues when choosing what to pin on its Pinterest page and is quick to ask for guidance from the Office of the Army General Counsel when questions arise.

“We were aware of the online buzz about pinning copyrighted images so we readjusted our Pinterest strategy to ensure that we only pinned content captured by Army photojournalists, which is public information/fair use,” Brown said.

The general counsel office’s support has been invaluable in ensuring that “we are not doing anything that would put us in a bad place from a legal standpoint,” she said, adding that the Army will adopt the new terms-of-service agreement GSA negotiated for Pinterest.

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