Facing Up To Facebook Fears

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.


  1. Ian Ketcheson says:

    Interesting perspective, Michael. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It is hard to justify enabling Facebook for all users, when from a productivity perspective, it looks a lot like a web-based e-mail site (which are generally not allowed behind corporate firewalls).

    That being said, I agree completely that governments need to get closer to the water coolers of social media. This is an essential responsibility for policy makers and communicators.

    As an interim step, I think the best solution is to enable access for select groups of employees that are tasked with understanding the pulse.

    Keep in mind that organizations, particularly bureaucratic ones, can be slow to change. Incremental steps are a good way to approach something like this.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am not a lawyer like mike, but because the government is not blocking the use of ‘social networking sites’ across the board, but is instead singling out a specific company for blocking; a company that is valued based on it’s subscriber base, they may be in a sticky legal situation for preferencing one company over another.

    It follows that if the government has the ability to block one site, then they should be responsible for blocking all sites. Any government policy must guarantee a fair and level playing field between competitive social networks. Anything less is simply market interference.

    More troubling however is that the government is so quick to enforce a technical blockade to solve a social problem. Is this a sign of things to come in the fight against internet censorship and drm? The necessity of a blockade to control what employees can do signals a systemic failure of management, effectively saying they have no ability to manage their employees effectively.

  3. Robert A. says:

    There are valid reasons to maintain confidentiality within government. Hence all Ontario government employees take an oath of secrecy. Many of these employees have access to databases containing confidential information about citizens and taxpayers. Security and law enforcement officers have an increased duty of confidentiality. People employed in the area of policy development have information that could be leveraged by stock traders. Employees who issue licenses and certificates could be exposed to undue pressure. And so on.

    However, it is possible to partially work around this block. Any union steward can post in their capacity as steward, and it is likely that any employee could post from home, using a pseudonym if necessary. So this is more a question of what people are permitted to do while earning the money the taxpayers pay them.

    I’ve had jobs where I wasn’t permitted to read newspapers during working hours, and I didn’t complain that freedom of the press was being violated. A ban on Facebook is a reasonable restriction and not some sort of oppressive tyranny.

  4. Adeel Khan says:

    Weighing in favour of this ban, I want our elected representatives and Ontario govt employees to be doing their job. i.e “serve the public”. That is what they were hired for.

    – For govt employees-:
    We have to understand that this ban affects all Ontario government employees. Along with a host of other websites blocked, Facebook now joins the list. These employees should be spending their time doing what they were hired to do, then to be spending time socializing with their friends over the internet.

    You cannot really argue with the notion, why this ban was enforced for the “Govt employees”. It is not their responsibility per say to be connecting with the general populace. So why do they need a “tool” like facebook during their regular work hours?

    – For the elected representative(s) – :
    Rather to be spending time on Facebook, updating the public as to what is going on within the various facets of Government. The onus is not on each elected representative to be updating the masses about the various projects, that is the responsibility of a “communications group” within the ministry that person is leading.

    If an elected representative is spending 50% of their time updating the masses (on government time), then I wonder how much time do they actually have understanding the various issues and working towards making constructive decisions that will shape our future.

    Right now, the Ontario government does a fairly decent job of updating the populace with various email/video updates via the website. It’s not very interactive, something that should change, but atleast for the time being there are regular updates sent via this portal:
    [ link ]

    Ideally every city/locale/community should have their own online portal, where users can come and discuss the various issues affecting their geographical locale. These virtual portals should be highly interactive, rather then static repositories where information is posted for the public to digest.

    Till we reach such a time and place, websites like Facebook and their rising popularity in terms of numbers, are going to continue wooing the politicians and elected representatives

    Personally I am a bit apprehensive about divulging details on a personal/group scale to a third party website. So I would weigh in favour of governments enhancing their own online portals and making them more interactive.

  5. I agree that Facebook is in many ways the new public square, a cyber-public forum. But, what does that really have to do with government employees? A government clerk is also not allowed to hang out at the town’s square when he or she is working… is it a problem too in that case?

    Frankly, government employees do not go to facebook to participate in the democracy and hear public opinion. They go there for the same purpose as everyone else: chat with friends, post pictures, do everything but their actual jobs.

  6. Lucas Robinson says:

    looking for new talent
    The “new public square” aspect of this discussion that you raise should be enough to convince the government to leave Facebook alone, but there is an additional point that should be of greater concern to Ontario Government Services Minister Gerry Phillips and Premier Dalton McGuinty, if they are serious about attracting young talent to civil service, and other efforts to revitalise Ontario’s bureaucracy: banning Facebook tells every savvy member of the Internet Generation that the Government of Ontario is not a serious place to work. Not because Facebook is necessarily an integral part of life, but because Facebook is part of an overall trend with respect to on-line communities, which the Internet Generation is enveloped by. They do business on Facebook. They coordinate political rallies on Facebook. They innovate on Facebook. They keep track of Barack Obama’s campaign on Facebook. And yes, they also plan their Friday nights on Facebook. That the province (and The Star) doesn’t appreciate how powerful this can be is a tremendous shame. That they would go so far as to link to the Facebook to gambling and pornography sites, and move to ban it signals that they actively don’t understand the strength of such communities, and that they’re not serious about connecting with this Generation. And that means that people will look elsewhere when they are looking for a good job.

    Been to the Google campus lately? Ah, but shucks, those guys are clearly just wasting time. No innovation there!

    The point for Mr. Phillips ought to be, hire people who don’t waste time – don’t to put limits on staff so that they have a harder time wasting time. That’ll just mean they waste time trying to find out how to waste more time!

  7. says:

    Suspending Students
    I agree with most of your Toronto Star article; however, I have to quibble with the point concerning the students being suspended. I think the point of their suspension was that their “conversation” was not out of earshot, and what a better time to let them know in life that on-line documents can easily be made public, unlike conversations (unless they are recorded). Also, we do not know the full extent of these students’ school files, so that leaves the reason for their suspensions open to some speculation. My point is that all K-12 schools and universities have Student Codes of Conduct, and one of the key components is that students can not make their school look bad.

    When I was in high school, I certainly remember students being suspended for things they said in conversations, especially if the school administration was in earshot. I can’t see how this is any different, or how it should be a protected part of free speech, especially when education, in many ways, aims to foster civilized and respectful cultural behaviour acceptable for life and success beyond the walls of the institution. In this instance, a warning and an apology might have sufficed, but really the suspension is not something out of line with previous practices given that the students were on a network with the schools name on it. In fact, I can’t think of a better way for students to learn this lesson en masse than a harsh penalty being made to ensure that they understand what the limits and boundaries are of privacy, and also how principles are used to ensure a safe, secure, open and inclusive learning environment.

    A story on this issue can be found here: [ link ]

  8. says:

    Suspending Students: Supplement
    I guess I could supplement my previous comment with an actual case of student free speech:

    York settles with student who was banned over protest
    By ELIZABETH CHURCH [Education Reporter]
    The Globe and Mail [Toronto]
    Tue 8 May 2007, Page A10
    [ link ]

  9. Mike Young says:

    It is the responsibility of parents to monitor child behavior on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites…not government and school officials. Censorship is counterproductive and ineffective.

  10. Jeff Rybak says:

    Can’t Always Stop At Education
    I agree the workplace polices are knee-jerk, and reaction involving students is almost certainly excessive in some cases. But it can’t always be enough to say to students, “that was bad, now we’ll use this as an opportunity to educate you.” When one student clubs another student on the head it can also be described as “an opportunity to educate” about violence, but some material consequence is also appropriate. Arguing that students need more education about cyber-communication (very true) is not a complete answer to the justification of punishment.

    To describe most communication over Facebook as “semi-private” is overly generous. Most of it is 100% public, with real names attached. And things that are posted there should carry as much weight and consequence as if they were physically posted on a bulletin board at school, or widely overheard in a hallway. Now, as it happens, I’m in favor of wide latitude in terms of what’s allowed and what qualifies as free speach. But anything that happens in public is public, and it’s that simple.

    If anything, the education that students need is to save them from their own net-habits. Students already know what they can’t say in public. They also have (as many of us do) completely different habits for the assumed anonimity of the Internet. What they have to learn is that sometimes, (and honestly, Facebook should be a no-brainer here) the Internet isn’t anonomous. If students were being IP-traced to their homes I’d feel differently. When they voluntarily self-identify in verifiable ways, as in Facebook, there’s no rational claim they are being hunted. At most, students are left looking incredibly stupid, expressing surprise that their teachers and administrators know how to use the Internet too.

  11. “I’ve had jobs where I wasn’t permitted to read newspapers during working hours, and I didn’t complain that freedom of the press was being violated. A ban on Facebook is a reasonable restriction and not some sort of oppressive tyranny.”

    I could not have said it better.

  12. Blow
    \”- For govt employees-:
    We have to understand that this ban affects all Ontario government employees. Along with a host of other websites blocked, Facebook now joins the list. These employees should be spending their time doing what they were hired to do, then to be spending time socializing with their friends over the internet. \”

    These ideas are clearly those of a traditional fundamentalist. Pray tell, in what manner do we reward our hard working employees with? When they gain efficiency, do we demand more work to fill in the time they have saved by being so efficient? Facebook and other online social communities are an intrinsic part of our social lives. Keeping in touch is no longer restricted to set aside times each day where we check our e-mail. They are now integrated bursts of interaction. You should not place expectations on your civil servants that you do not have for yourself. Engaging in online activities is a great way to address mental exhaustion and helps break up the day.

  13. Richard Chmura Sr. says:

    RE: Cyber-bullying
    targeting teachers: poll

    When teachers declare themselves victims of students’ name-calling and send the RCMP chasing after the little whippersnappers we are in big, big trouble. When I was in school teachers could deal with it. If not, they found other work. Teaching was a position of privilege and responsibility.

    Ms Leong reports the news. More importantly she foreshadows a decline of civilization. Why? First, an impressionable child will adopt the attitude of a teacher. Must they call police and embellish every infraction? Second, much research shows victims often act out by victimizing others in a cycle of abuse.

    I cite a prime example in a video on the Ontario Ministry of Education website. Brant MPP Dave Levac, a former teacher, and the Minister both testify, by religiously raising their hand, that they have been victims of cyber bullying. Both were well into their forties before they could spell WWW. What ornery student then emailed Dave about his nose hairs? Is that why he left teaching for politics?

    Here comes the real problem. Victims escalate the cycle of abuse. These two self-professed victims now have power, parliamentary privilege. And they have used it shamelessly. I cite online Hansard transcripts of August 29 and September 1, 2006. Where else in the world has a government cyber bullied, by name, a 14-year-old so heinously. It is one thing if your friends tease “your mother wears army boots.” Everyone knows it isn’t true or even all that hurtful. It is quite another issue when 100 MPP’s broadcast on a government website that your uncle had sex with animals as well as your witch grandmother. Even more dreadful when they charge your grandmother, your sister and yourself guilty of criminal negligence when you watched your uncle shot to death by police. This is against the law, the government’s own rules, and is a serious abuse of the privileged government website. It is not a fashion statement.

    Teaching our children is the most privileged and important work I can imagine. A close second is making the laws that protect our children. It is urgent we get irresponsible victims out of these precious positions of privilege. Stop the cycle.

    Ministry of education video: [ link ]
    Text version: [ link ]
    Aug 29: [ link ]
    Sept 1: [ link ]

    Richard Chmura Sr.

  14. Google Fail says:

    Search Engine Fail
    It’s depressing to see this post of mostly comments list highly in Google for an irrelevant personal name search. Big fail Google!