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Facing Up To Facebook Fears

Appeared in the Toronto Star on May 7, 2007 as Let's Face It, Facebook is Here To Stay

Facebook, the enormously popular social media website, has attracted a remarkable amount of attention in recent weeks.   On the heels of several high profile cases of student suspensions for posting negative comments about school officials on Facebook and the introduction of provincial cyber-bullying legislation, the Ontario government last week announced that it was banning access to the site for thousands of bureaucrats and elected officials.

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.

Facebook launched in February 2004 as a social network site for Harvard University.  The site allowed users to chat, post photos and comments, as well as connect with fellow students with common interests through online groups.  

The site quickly grew, first to other universities and later to high schools.  By last summer, it had grown to more than 30,000 educational institutions in the U.S., Canada, and other English-speaking countries with roughly eight million users.  

Last September, Facebook open its virtual doors to the general public by permitting registrations from people in hundreds of geographic areas.  The decision, which created some apprehension among the Facebook community, caused the site to explode in popularity.  Today, there are 21 million Facebook users worldwide and the site is adding 100,000 new users each week.  

It has proven particularly popular in Canada as Toronto ranks as the largest geographic Facebook community in the world and there are more than two million registered Canadian users.  Statistics Canada estimates that there are approximately 17 million Canadian Internet users, suggesting that in the span of nine months the site has grown to the point that roughly one in ten Canadian Internet users now has a page on the site.

Although most people associate Facebook with social activities, the site can be very useful in mobilizing interest around political and policy issues.  For example, six weeks ago Amber MacArthur, a reporter with City-TV, launched a new group called Canadians for Net Neutrality.  Today the group has more than 1,100 participants, sharing ideas and concerns about whether Canadian Internet service providers are treating content and applications in an equitable manner.

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).

Many Facebook users openly comment about issues of concern.  That naturally includes students posting thoughts about fellow students and teachers or about supervisors at their part-time jobs.  In recent months, an Ottawa grocery chain fired several of its employees after company officials discovered negative comments on Facebook, while several Ontario schools have suspended students for posting "offensive" comments about school officials.

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.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at


  1. Russell McOrmond says:

    Last week I sent my MP David McGuinty an email suggesting staff set him up on Facebook, both with having a profile and having a group anyone could join. His Conservative opponents in Ottawa South have done so, as have many other Federal liberals including their leader who has even created videos answering questions that came from facebook.

    [ link ]

    It is clear that the federal Liberals “get it”, so why such a backward facing decision by the Ontario government?

    [ link ]

  2. Daniel A. Lublin says:

    Toronto Employment Lawyer
    I agree with you that there is a utility to the networking aspects of Facebook. However, my view is that seldom will Facebook ever be used for exclusively business purposes. But even if I’m wrong, the Provincial government’s approach seemed not to be a stopgap measure but rather an obvious management response to a rather novel threat.

    From a legal standpoint, employers have good reason to specifically prohibit the use of Facebook at work. This was the gist of the opinion that I provided to the Toronto Star last week, and in my workplace law column in the Metro News. For more information on this topic, I encourage you to to take a look at my own Employment Law Blog where I\’ve recently posted on the issue.

  3. Craig Hubley says:

    why not to facebook
    The reasons not to facebook are pretty similar to the reasons not to blog:
    [ link ]

    To that one might add that one’s a bit more exposed depending on who one’s friends are. Facebook “platform” in particular could be a major leak of personal data so opening “privacy” and unchecking all the items there is advisable.

    This still won’t protect you from scrAPIs though.

  4. Wendell Dryden says:

    Literacy Worker
    There seem to be two different issues here. One has to do with the exposure (or fear of exposure) of unseemly or impolitic behaviour. Someone wiser than I will have to distinguish preserving privacy and being held responsible for how we behave. The other has to do with productivity; for which we will also ban the computer game solitaire, an undeniable sump of work hours.

  5. This also appeared in the BBC here:
    [ link ]

  6. Erika Rathje says:

    Web/Print Designer
    This is an interesting context. I recently signed up to Facebook, after hearing a ton of harping on about it and deciding to stay away. I gave in when an old friend “added” me, and, having no other way to keep in touch since his email address wasn’t displayed, I signed up. As it turns out, it’s a fantastic way to keep up with my former classmates from 4 years of post-secondary, high school friends, and our events. Its interface impresses me most, but also scares me a little since anyone can see anything that anyone does or says, with limitations.

    I took a course on blogging, YouTube and confessions. It included Facebook at the end. Our discussions around personal information, confessions, privacy and perpetuity of information led to the conclusion that each generation is much more open than the last. Us 20-somethings were less keen on exposing our innards (which is, really, a very intentional act–the information is there only if you give it out willingly) and making personal statements than teenagers appear to be. Teenagers’ private spaces are public while their public spaces are private.

    While I agree it’s free speech to talk badly of others online, it’s NOT the same as doing it in a corner of the office or out of the range of a teacher. What you say in person usually doesn’t persist–it has to be pretty darn juicy to do so (aka “I heard that so-and-so did this with so-and-so”), whereas on the Internet and especially networking sites, it has the potential to be seen by anybody, beyond your control, forever and always. So I warned some teacher-bashing high school students about their behaviour, and told them if they really hated the profs so much they could go elsewhere. They just don’t seem to care. Furthermore, saying something because it’s free speech doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate, polite, or acceptable to say it. A person can tell a judge to buzz off, but they’ll be reprimanded for it. A student can tell a principal to buzz off; same thing. Doing it online doesn’t legitimate it, unlike what teens seem to think, and I commend schools for taking action even though it’s outside of their jurisdiction. (Would parents keep up with this stuff?) While I find there seem to be issues with workplace/school snooping online, people really, really ought to know better.

    As an alternative to Facebook and solitaire at work, consider a 15-minute nap and a pool table. Give people something good to talk about when they go online at home.