Tuesday 8 November 2011

Access to Social Networking is a Human Rights Issue

In my job as a social work lecturer I had a conversation the other day about Facebook and employment. Several of the students told me they had become aware of problems associated with use of Facebook and people's employment. One was a situation in which someone had made a comment which might have been seen to be critical of the persons employer. In this case the employer had not been mentioned on Facebook. I think the employer had a legitimate issue about it not being appropriate to put info about one's employment on Facebook. However, I think their response was disproportionate to the employee's error oif judgement. More concerning, was the fact that a number of people who work in social care are apparently being told that they should not have Facebbok accounts at all. A certain amount of caution and use of privacy settings is appropriate due to the nature of social work and the fact that making too much of one's own information publicly accessible is a potential risk for employees. There is also the fact that people should not discuss details of their work or their attitudes to it in a forum where they (and by extension their employer and/or service users) can be identified.
However, nothwithstanding the above, banning people from using Facebook and social networking is a serious violation of people's civil liberties and could have serious negative consequences for their ability to socialise and have a normal life outside work., As the number of people with Facebbok accounts mushrooms it is becoming a mainstream way of communicating with people. Facebook is a faster, easier and more effective way of communicating with friends than email, telephone or amy other communication platform. It allows people to talk in real time, share photos, share one's present location, arrange outings, share photos,inform large numbers of people news at the same time, share conversations and leave comments,and act as a portal to other platforms such as this blog. Even more importantly it allows all these things to be done at the same time with minimal hassle. It is genuinely frictionless communication. It has great potential for business and professional networking which so far has hardly been exploited. It is a better vehicle for sharing examples of good practice and promoting collaboration than any alternative conduits available in most businesses. On the commercial front many businesses are considering scaling down their websites in favour of using Facebook as main platform for building rlationships with their customers. For purely social purposes it allows people with similar interests to make new friends across countries and time zones and develop new communities electonically.
Much of the moral panic and technophobia surrounding Facebook relates to the perceived lack of privacy. These comments miss the point completely. Facebook is like any other form of communication- it can be as private or as public as you like. If you are standing in a busy street you can shout a message to everyone on the street or whisper a message to the person beside you. The analogy with a street, is I think very appropriate. Banning people from Facebook is like forbidding them to walk out on the street or go to the local pub. It is a form of digital house arrest. I find myself building closer links with people who use Facebook and find it more difficult to keep up with people who aren't. When people ask me about a trip or something I have been doing I find it slightly irritating that they haven't accessed the information I have put up electronically. The divide between people who use it and people who don't is going to become a new digital divide- with people who don't use social networking being more and more excluded. Being banned from social networking is a form of digital house arrest- you are banned from taking part in an important part of the social environment. It is in fact a denial of human rights to take part in the life of one's community.
Of course, eventually these social work/social care employers will have to capitulate- just as they had to in relation to accessing the internet at work. It is a shame, however, that parts of the sector has to start from a position of Luddism and fear- rather than a willingness to embrace the potential of powerful technologies.
Meanwhile I think it is just a matter of time before someone challenges the issue on a human rights basis.

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