Deciphering Legal Issues in Building Social Media Collections: The Classic Case of Twitter (Introduction)

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In the fast paced world of  Web 2.0, social media has gradually ousted the traditional modes of written communication viz. letters, postcards and journals. Whilst, I cannot recollect the last time I wrote a letter (perhaps seven years back or so), today morning’s turn of events were rather astounding. During my routine mailbox inspection,  I was enthralled  to discover the rare sight of a light blue colored –  inland letter languishing underneath a  pile of bank statements. Perplexed, thinking it be another mailbox fudge up by USPS, my attempt to return it (without looking at the name of the intended recipient) to an otherwise jubilant concierge was countered by an unfathomable question (it seemed one at that time) – “Have you changed your name to Simone or Samantha?” Little did I know that my stoic “no” to her question was garnering much attention from my Sino – American neighbour who finds my name unusually hilarious (she has suggested me on a number of occasions to adopt a more “Americanized name“). Nevertheless, this encounter ultimately ensued with a handwritten letter (my first in ten years) resting in my hands, traversing a distance of seventy – five hundred miles from India. My name was beautifully emblazoned in blue ink. Guessing the name of the sender was not arduous. It could only have been my now retired English literature professor uncle who was kind enough to wind up the letter with,  ” Please don’t bother to write back. You can send an email or message indicating the date this reaches you.”  (By all means, I intend to make an earnest attempt to write back to him instead of sending an email).

Anyway, that’s enough procrastination for now.

Social media apart from being an active mode of communication, is also a rich repository of knowledge and trends. Due to it’s evanescent nature, the academic community at large risks losing this vital piece of information which can prove to be a highly useful research tool for students, faculty and scholars. ( For a better insight into why and how academics study social media, see  Journal of Documentation – statistics on page number 4 are particularly relevant , Public Health Surveillance of Dental Pain via Twitter – page numbers 1 and 3 are relevant and Library of Congress’s White Paper on it’s Twitter Archive – page numbers 1 and 4 are relevant).

With this objective in mind, the Library of Congress- the de facto public library of the US and the research wing of the Congress, announced in the spring of 2010 that it would acquire Twitter’s entire archive of tweets and would make it available to researchers. As of October, 2015, the project is still in limbo with a grim possibility of the archive being available to researchers anytime soon. The reason for the prolonged delay can be attributed to the technical challenges involved in managing an archive of atleast half a trillion tweets.

Apart from the technical challenges involved in harvesting, storing and indexing social media, libraries and archives are fraught with multiple legal and ethical issues involved in building social media collections. Though delineating the legal issues in building such a  collection for each prominent social media platform would be an overtly ambitious exercise, I chose Twitter due to it’s proved usage in academic discourses (both in US and India ; I have not attempted to look into other jurisdictions for now though Singapore is on my mind).

Thus, through a three part series,  I will delve into copyright, access and privacy issues involved in building a Twitter archive. (Please be patient for the next post in the series! I know that I need to be more pro-active but alas I am a hapless victim of this brutal profession called law – no complaints!).