Government faces Facebook reality

The power of social networking struck the federal government with unmistakable force in December. Industry Minister Jim Prentice had intended to introduce new copyright legislation before Parliament’s holiday break. Professor Michael Geist of Ottawa University believed that Canadians did not know enough about the issue so he launched a Facebook group, Fair Copyright for Canada, on the first of December with, as he wrote, limited expectations.

The next two weeks, he wrote, demonstrated that Facebook is “…an incredibly effective and efficient tool that can be used to educate and galvanize grassroots advocacy, placing unprecedented power into the hands of individuals.” An exercise in distance education quickly grew. From a ‘seed’ of about 100 invitations, it attracted 10,000 members in a week, 25,000 in two weeks and, Geist wrote, at one point a Canadian was joining every 30 seconds.

Virtual organization led to real world lobbying as people spoke with the minister directly at a riding open house in Calgary and documented the encounter on the Internet. Shortly after, Prentice announced that the proposed legislation would appear sometime in the new year.

All this over copyright! What’s going to happen when other issues with greater emotional appeal come along? What’s going to happen when every policy decision spontaneously generates an extra-Parliamentary debate?

The private sector has already encountered this new force. In June 2005, blogger Jeff Jarvis posted a stinging critique of the service policies of Dell Inc. on his blog and sparked a firestorm. Literally thousands of people joined the online conversation about ‘Dell hell’ and there is little doubt thousands more listened in, using what they read to make their next computer purchase decision. In earlier times, word of mouth might slowly have eroded the company’s reputation. In this ‘social networking’ stage of the Internet, bad news flashes everywhere in the world in an instant.

Dell invested in software to get a grip on messages about the company. “It goes out and scrapes every inch of the Internet,” said Richard Binhammer, a Dell corporate communications executive. Employees can react to messages on bulletin boards and in chat rooms almost as soon as they are posted. The software needs some ‘teaching’ with keywords and phrases but automation is the only way to monitor and protect Dell’s global corporate image. It includes positive and negative scoring, and sounds alerts when the potential for bad publicity begins to climb. Employees can respond to unfavourable information quickly but more importantly, they can act to resolve issues before the company loses sales.

As Binhammer said, “You used to communicate up and down.” Now, employees can communicate inside and outside, and they can communicate all the time. Dell Computers, according to Binhammer, has realized that on any given day, the company is the subject of anywhere up to 5,000 conversations. “Barriers of geographic, community, voice have completely changed.” Institutions, corporate or public sector, no longer control the discourse by controlling the content, Binhammer said.

What about governments? “They’re completely out of touch with their citizens,” he said. In a passive sense, they can easily get in the game with tools like Google and Technorati, or use Yahoo Pipes to aggregate information from a wide variety of sources.

But how is that going to work with governments that cannot bring themselves to allow even senior civil servants to speak with journalists without permission from higher authority? While some private companies engage their audiences wholeheartedly across any communications medium they can find, governments have lumped social media in with pornography and gambling, instituting Facebook bans and blocking instant messaging on work networks.

Social networking offers governments a new tool to generate consensus, promote programs and policies or communicate in emergencies, but as with any new communications technology, it brings a fresh range of IT security challenges. Social networking is by its very nature insecure. Until now, most organizations have looked at social networking technologies as enemies to productivity and as ‘bandwidth bandits’.

Social networks have already demonstrated their power to influence governments and activists will be quick to capitalize on this success. So will criminals. IT security managers will be asked to ‘square the circle’, enabling better communication and protecting their networks at the same time, but the real challenge is to politicians who must create a new relationship with the citizens they represent.

(The last column misspelled the name of Teradata IT security executive Adriaan Veldhuisen, an error for which I apologize.)

Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based freelance writer specializing in IT security. Contact him

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