Law firms tackle the Facebook debate

by 15 Apr 2008

THE QUESTION of whether or not to block Facebook and other social networking sites has the law firms divided.

DLA Phillips Fox is one firm that has taken a strict approach. The firm’s employees are given a daily 60 minute period to access sites a range of sites, such as Facebook, that the firm considers to be non-business related. The 60 minutes can be used at anytime throughout the day, but once used up, the employee can’t sites access the sites for the rest of the day.

“We’ve had this policy for quite some time,” the firm’s general manager of IT, John Duckett explained. “It wasn’t designed for Facebook or MySpace, but the social networking sites just happen to fall into that category [of restricted sites].”

A combination of a number of factors, such as issues of system performance and security, led to the firm taking this approach, Duckett explained.

“Downloads impact other business activities, such as the promptness of email. People are downloading lots of stuff on the internet, and this is the case with Facebook, even if they may not be conscious of it, because it has a lot of graphics,” he said. “[Also] with social networking sites, there’re a lot of security problems. There’s a risk of loss of corporate data when people are uploading to those sites because we can’t impose the same security restrictions we would for other sites and emails.”

Worker productivity is also a concern for the firm, Duckett admitted. “We don’t want to hinder employees or make their lives unhappy, but you are meant to be working during working hours, so how much do you need to visit these sites?” he said.

Freehills sits on the other end of the spectrum, allowing employees to access Facebook freely, albeit with policies in place regarding appropriate internet use. According to Gareth Bennett, the firm’s director for people and development, it’s a policy that the vast majority of employees respect.

“We’ve debated this issue a few times recently, but in our view, we bring in professionals and we expect them to behave professionally, and they do,”he said. “I firmly believe that it’s better to treat people as responsible adults, and they inevitably respond well to that. If you do get one or two people who might abuse it then you deal with them separately, rather than put out a policy based on the lowest common denominator.”

Bennett said that the firm hasn’t had any problems with system performance as a result of allowing employees access to social networking sites. “We haven’t seen any examples of that. As I said, it’s a professional organisation and the absolute vast majority of people respect that,” he said.

Similarly to Freehills, Deacons allows employees to access Facebook freely, subject to a “reasonable use” policy. Partner and Sydney office chairman Nick Abrahams, explained that the policy is designed to give employees a sense of what is considered reasonable, incidental, personal internet use, as well as covering a range of concerns such as the disclosure of the firm’s confidential information and intellectual property, and harassment.

“People need to be wary of letting confidential information out. They need to be aware that information that goes out onto these sites will become available for many years into the future,” he said. “People have had significant issues with their online personalities and not being able to retract information they’ve made available and that’s certainly been an issue with Facebook. So it’s really an education process – explaining to people how these things work and what is regarded as “reasonable”.


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