Internet law professor Michael Geist says attempts to block social media sites such as Facebook are misguided.
Facebook, the enormously popular social media website, has attracted a remarkable amount of attention in recent weeks.
Facebook has seen rapid growth
On the heels of student suspensions for posting negative comments about school officials on Facebook, and the integral role the social media site played for student expression during the horrific events at Virginia Tech, the Province of Ontario in Canada last week announced that it was banning access to the site for thousands of bureaucrats and elected officials.
While the merits of Facebook are 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 was used by more than 30,000 educational institutions in the US, Canada, and other English-speaking countries, with roughly eight million users.
Last September, Facebook opened 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.
Facebook is used amongst groups of friends
Today, there are 21 million Facebook users worldwide and the site is adding 100,000 new users each week.
The site has achieved remarkable success in Britain, where it was recently ranked as the twentieth most visited website in the country, up twenty-fold from the prior year.
While the number of UK Facebook users was estimated at 200,000 last September, by March 2007 that number had grown to more than 1.3 million registered users. In fact, more than 40 U.K. universities have signed up to Facebook, leading to some criticism that the site "institutionalises gossip".
Although most people associate Facebook with social activities, the site can be very useful in mobilising interest around political and policy issues.
For example, six weeks ago, Amber MacArthur, a Canadian television reporter, 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 centred 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.
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
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.
Facing up to fears
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 be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.