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Should Businesses Restrict Social Networking?
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December 15, 2009

Should Businesses Restrict Social Networking?

By Lance Whitney, Journalist, IT Consultant, Web Developer

Does your company allow your employees to access Facebook (News - Alert), Twitter, and other social networking sites on the job? Since social networks have taken off, this question has posed a conundrum for businesses. Should worries about company privacy and potential malware prevent or limit access to such sites? Or do you give employees free reign and hope for the best?

A recent blog post on Forrester Research’s (News - Alert) Web site specifically addresses the issue. The blog was written in response to companies who had contacted Forrester raising questions and concerns about employee use of social networks. Forrester found that many businesses are wary of preventing access to Facebook and similar sites but are also concerned about potential malware, data loss, and effects on productivity from employees who use these sites.

The risks to companies aren't trivial. As social networks have been bitten by more malware, typified by the infamous Koobface virus that attacked Facebook, access to these sites does pose some security risks. Of course, companies should be fully protecting themselves against any and all kinds of malware, whatever its source. But it's a valid concern.

Forrester also said that corporate America is worried about the loss of data as employees post content to social networks. Employees can sometimes casually and easily reveal news and gossip about their companies via a social network. But businesses obviously don't want private or proprietary information revealed to the public through a Facebook posting or Twitter tweet.

The other fear cited by Forrest was damage to corporate image, which takes the loss of data a few steps further. Anyone can set up a fake page about your company on Facebook or LinkedIn or edit one of your corporate videos and pose it on YouTube (News - Alert) as the real thing. Any such incidents could certainly harm your company's reputation.

Despite the risks, though, Forrester believes businesses should give their employees access to social networking sites. Using these sites is no longer an option but a necessity for many types of companies.

I'd agree. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly a source of news and information that could be valuable to your business. Many people use these sites now to keep abreast of developments in their industry, learn what competitors are up to, and most imporantly stay in touch with customers and colleagues. Denying your employees access to these sites takes away a competitive advantage.

But if your company is going to permit access to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, Forrester strongly believes that a set of best practices should be set up and clearly communicated to employees. When forming such policies, Forrester suggests a few items to keep in mind.

1 - Determine if everyone needs the same level of access. Depending on your business culture, some employees may be able to get by with a read-only policy for sites such as Facebook or Twitter, while others would certainly need to be able to post content as well.

2 - Be careful about software downloads. Since malware usually finds its target via downloaded software, you may want to restrict the ability to download files or install software from specific social networking sites.

3 - Decide if you want to restrict the types of social networking activities or time spent on them. Employees will sometimes check or update their personal Facebook or LinkedIn accounts on company time, just like they check personal email or make personal phone calls. A small amount of personal use might be okay, but you may want state in the policy that you expect employees to exercise good judgment in balancing work productivity with personal use.

4 - Make it clear to employees what type of content is okay to post. For example, Forrester says that some businesses prevent employees from commenting on the company at all in social networking posts.

Forrester further suggests that any policy should remind people that the misuse of social networks could potentially put the entire company at risk, whether it's from malware or from a tarnished reputation.

Finally, some businesses might believe that a corporate policy governing social networks is sufficient, notes Forrester; others may feel the need to take stronger measures by monitoring such use or setting up filtering technology to restrict it.

Like use of the Internet in general, the use of social networking sites can be advantageous to your business. You just want to be sure people within your company are using these sites wisely.

Lance Whitney is a journalist, IT consultant, and Web Developer with almost 20 years of experience in the IT world. To read more of Lance's articles, please visit his columnist page

Edited by Patrick Barnard

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