My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) examines the recent controversy associated with Facebook, including student suspensions for postings and the Ontario government decision to ban access to the site for thousands of bureaucrats and elected officials. I argue that while the merits of Facebook is open to debate – some love it, others hate it, and many simply do not understand what the fuss is about – there should be no debating the fact that many of these policy responses are unnecessary, knee-jerk reactions to an emerging social phenomenon that is poorly understood.
The recent backlash against Facebook has generally on centered around two concerns – derogatory comments and workplace productivity (ironically missing the real sources of concern such as the privacy impact of posting deeply personal information).
While companies are obviously entitled to establish the ground rules for employee behaviour, it is hard to see how schools can justify suspending students for simply speaking their minds. It is certainly appropriate to take action against cyber-bullying, however students exercising legitimate free speech should not be punished simply because the speech occurs in a semi-private online forum rather than in a semi-private discussion on school grounds out of earshot of school officials. In fact, educators should seize these opportunities to teach students about both the benefits and drawbacks of social media, while encouraging them to use the tools in positive ways.
The Ontario government ban against Facebook is even more puzzling. Premier Dalton McGuinty indicated that the government does not see how it adds value to the workplace, yet the decision will only further isolate the government from the very public that it serves. Is there really no benefit to have government policy makers access and participate in the hundreds of groups discussing Ontario health care issues? Would it be so bad for elected officials to actually engage with their constituents in a social network environment?
The attempts to block Facebook or punish users for stating their opinions fails to appreciate that social network sites are simply the Internet generation’s equivalent of the town hall, the school cafeteria, or the workplace water cooler – the place where people come together to exchange both ideas and idle gossip.
Attempts to block such activity are not only bound to fail, but they ultimately cut off decision makers, school officials, and community leaders from their communities. The answer does not lie in banning Facebook or the other emerging social media sites, but rather in facing up to Facebook fears and learning to use these new tools to engage and educate.