Facebook ban a knee-jerk reaction, say experts

A decision by the Ontario government to ban access to Facebook for staffers from their computers has been deemed a knee-jerk reaction by experts in the social networking field.

The Facebook ban is part of an ongoing evaluation of IT that is conducted within the Government of Ontario, according to Minister of Government Services (MGS) spokesperson Paul de Zara.

“We have a unit inside the Ministry of Government Services that’s responsible for monitoring viruses, spam, Web usage, etc.,” explains De Zara.

Facebook Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., is obviously not pleased with the Government of Ontario’s decision. “We’re puzzled by why the government would block access to Facebook, and we’re in contact with provincial officials and hope to resolve this quickly,” says Facebook spokesperson Matt Hicks.

“Both politicians and government employees are regularly using Facebook for everything from campaigning to communicating with constituents and staff.”

De Zara adds that as part of its ongoing evaluation, the IT unit examines sites that are becoming increasingly popular and using up more bandwidth which can slow down the system.

“Facebook came under the umbrella of more of a social networking tool and one that was getting more use throughout the government network,” he says. “Given the fact that it was high-usage and is predominantly a social network and not a business tool, it was added to the list of prohibited sites.”

The other restricted sites on the Government of Ontario list include YouTube, gambling sites and adult content sites. The ban is in effect for all Government of Ontario computers, says De Zara.

However, it appears the Ontario government hasn’t completely thought this through, suggests Dan Latendre, CIO and technology officer for the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

“I personally think it’s a knee-jerk reaction, until they get a better understanding of what their staff are doing,” says Latendre.

“With products like Facebook and MySpace where it’s a social network, the question that you always have from a business perspective is, what is the value and what is the business purpose behind the social network?” he adds.

Latendre notes there are only two measures of that value: return on investment and total cost of ownership.

“When you’re paying staff members to do a job and they’re using these services like Facebook, it gets kind of leery: Are they using it in their job or are they using it for social purposes?” asks Latendre.

Latendre says that in order to measure the value of a site, be it social networking or a knowledge site, he uses three fundamental pillars: it connects people to people, people to information, and people to process.

“In order to do that, you have an area that provides access to very high-valued content, not just documents but also Web resources, newsfeeds, content that’s relevant to that group,” he says. “I also see it as a tool for being able to stimulate conversation, dialogue and debate…I think that Facebook and others do a fairly good job, it’s not focused yet, but I’m sure that’s the path.”

CIGI is working on focused social networking sites and, in conjunction with 10 foundation partners including CIDA and Elections Canada, will be rolling out Governance Network this fall. CIGI this month is also launching Policy Net, a social network of all the public policy schools around the world, says Latendre.

With respect to the potential use of social networking sites as a tool for receiving feedback from citizens, De Zara says the MGS already has the capacity to set up a portal like that internally.

“We often ask the public for feedback on policy, and there’s often a specially designated site for that,” says De Zara. “Something like this (the ban) doesn’t prevent the government from consulting the public. What we’re saying is this is a privately run system that’s primarily for social interaction, not for feedback, so that’s why it meets the criteria for being a prohibited site.”

As for the future of social networking sites, Latendre foresees more of a focus with respect to content and value. “Where I see the next trend is creating these social networks of individuals of similar focus or interests.

“You join these networks because of the individuals who are part of the networks, because they are working, interested, studying, or advising on specific areas of interest that you’re working on or are interested in,” says Latendre. “I think that’s a much more interesting and valuable network for me than what Facebook would be.”

Related content:

Citizen engagement: Growing grass roots

Ontario test-drives new brand of democracy

Readers write back:

On Friday, May 11, Bill Joyce of Richmond Hill, Toronto, wrote:

Without getting into the old argument of, “What is the value of social activities in the workplace?” it’s more pertinent to deal with the reality of today’s challenges and responsibilities. The provision of tech services, while hopefully trying to maintain some social awareness and “keeping the human aspect,” at times must be trumped by the reality of continued provision. So, if exponential bandwidth use is a concern or unrecognized traffic inhibits or masks possible discovery of malware, then decisions are made accordingly.

Facebook, online music, MySpace (no, strike that last one), etc., may not ever pose a network threat, directly. On the other hand, potential indirect contributers may require unpopular actions. I’m just saying that I can understand the decision…

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