What You Need to Know About “Acceptable Use Policies”

What You Need to Know About “Acceptable Use Policies”

As access to the Internet and other technologies become a mandatory requirement of working in a connected society, networks need to protect against misuse of access to the web. Throughout each working day, organizations ranging from corporations to schools and libraries need to prepare for possible misuse by users. Users can be a wide ranging term that includes employees of a business, students in a school, or patrons of an organization such as a library. The challenge faced by all of these organizations is how exactly should they address these challenges of possible misuse by users.

The standard method of addressing these situations is to create and disseminate an acceptable use policy (AUP) that strives to avoid network misuse, while identifying consequences for breaking the rules of this contract. The goal is to develop and promote AUPs within organizations and institutions that are progressive, responsive to changes in the Internet, while not negatively impacting morale and productivity. The challenge behind these documents and policies is that they often differ in terms of purpose and implementation. Furthermore, the actual impact of these policies may be quite different for each institution across multiple fields. This is further exacerbated as individuals engage in media literacy practices in and out of school environments, and across multiple digital tools, platforms, and spaces. These policies and the expectations and limitations they place Internet usage have an impact on use and acquisition of media literacy. This has implications on educators, researchers, and practitioners as they encounter AUPs in their everyday work.

This post is an abbreviated version of my submission on acceptable use policies for the upcoming International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy. Please feel free to review and comment on the submitted version here.

What is an acceptable use policy?

Generally, an acceptable use policy (AUP) is defined as a set of “strategies that allow school districts to notify technology users of expected behavior and set forth the consequences of misuse” (Conn, 2002, p. 91). In application, there is much more at stake in the implementation of AUPs. Wikipedia defines an AUP as a set of rules applied by the owner, creator, or administrator of a network, website, or service. This AUP is sometimes identified as an acceptable usage policy, or a fair use policy. These policies are meant to restrict the ways in which the network, website, or system may be used and establish guidelines for usage. AUPs are documents written for organizations (e.g., corporations, businesses, universities, schools, libraries, internet service providers, website owners).

AUPs are similar to the terms of service (ToS), terms of use (ToU), or End-user License Agreement (EULA) documents that technology companies and developers include with their products or services. There are slight differences between these documents (i.e., ToS, ToU, EULA) and AUPs. AUPs cover large computing resources,such as websites or networks. AUPs emphasize etiquette and respect for fellow users (presumably not applicable to single-user programs or other computer services). One key difference is that ToS and ToU usually detail how they will interact with the user, and provide little guidance as to how to use the product or service.

The role of AUPs in and out of educational settings

Educators, researchers, and practitioners face many challenges as they interact with AUPs in their own work, and as they protect and prepare students for current and future environments. AUPs may dictate usage of apps, networks, and Internet access at work, home of the library for individuals. To some extent, our everyday interactions in a web and media literacy environment are dictated by a blanket of documents and agreements constructed from AUPs as well as other ToS or ToU. Educators, researchers, and practitioners not only have to be aware of their own rights and privileges under these documents, but also educate and advocate for students as they use these tools and services.  

Within educational contexts, AUPs are evidence of a policy that outlines how a school, district, or institution expects its members to behave in regards to the usage of technology. The usage of technology is typically written broadly and includes hardware, information systems or databases, as well as the Internet, and associated networking capabilities. AUPs in education typically identify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in their documents. Unacceptable behaviors may include issues of plagiarism, copyright violations, piracy, visitation of inappropriate materials and website.

Is your AUP acceptable?

Development of an AUP should begin with an understanding of the culture and philosophy of the service and the group that will utilize the networks, websites, or services. Existing AUPs and templates can be identified from a number of sources online, however these should only be used as a starting point for discussion. Osborne (2011) suggests that groups create a social media policy to guide discussion and come to consensus about appropriate conduct online. This discussion, and subsequent revisions about the social media guidelines should include stakeholders that will need to agree to, and enforce these policies (Taylor, Whang, & Grimes, 2010). In a school district or building, this may include school administrators, parents, and students.

The AUP, or documents related to expected online behaviors (e.g., social media policies) should be easy to comprehend, detailed, and focus on the complexities required to be web and media literate (Taylor, Whang, & Tettegah, 2006). The development of an AUP should also take into account existing policies that dictate expected behaviors and literacy practices (Russo, 2013). As an example, if there are already policies in place that dictate appropriate discourse and speech, perhaps it is not necessary to duplicate these policies in a new document. Many school districts also curtail their AUP as they contemplate the need for a new statement that indicates how they comply with existing policies (e.g., bullying), state or national telecommunication rules and regulations, as well as fair use and other intellectual property laws (Brooks-Young, 2010; Marwick, Murgia-Diaz, & Palfrey, 2010; Ahrens, 2012).  

Finally, the language of the AUP should be easy to read and understand by not only the parties agreeing to the terms, but also the groups enforcing the document. AUPs, ToS, ToU, and EULA documents are often too long, too complex, and not transparent (Fiesler, Lampe, & Bruckman, 2016). The end result is that the document is not easy to read, understand, or enforce. Media and web literacy instruction should include guidance not only for the development of AUPs, but also the comprehension of these documents. More transparency is needed for these documents (i.e., AUPs, ToS, ToU, EULA) to ensure that they are written in a manner that is easy to understand and follow.  

Wrapping up

Digital networks, websites, and services are a necessary component of the toolset required to build and utilize digital and media literacies. Appropriate policies, procedures, and guidelines are necessary to protect the developers and administrators of these texts and tools, as well as the users of these spaces. These documents often fail to provide users with the freedom needed to expand their skills, while still creating safe and appropriate boundaries for use of the Internet and all it has to offer. To prepare individuals to be digitally savvy, media literate citizens, there is a need for guideline guidelines, discussions, and agreed upon policies that emphasize successful practice and define the suitable use of the technology and tools being used.

 

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Also published on Medium.

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