Facebook controversy arises in workplaces

Recent ban of website in Ontario ­government offices highlights employer concerns
By Ronald Minken
|Canadian Employment Law Today

On May 2, 2007, the government of Ontario barred its employees from access to Facebook, the popular social networking site originally launched for Harvard University in February 2004, sparking international attention from employees and employers regarding the scope of employer control over Internet access in the workplace. The barring of access to Facebook has raised important issues regarding the extent to which an employer can reasonably restrict their employees’ use of the internet while at work. Are employers within legal rights to ban access to Facebook, and similar sites, from the workplace?

The backlash against Facebook is largely due to a concern over derogatory comments and a decrease in workplace productivity, which are both valid concerns for employers. There are currently 21 million Facebook users worldwide, and Canadians spend on average of 29.6 minutes per day on the social networking site, according to its marketing staff. Its increasing popularity among employees and employers alike is a cause for concern and is likely one of the primary reasons for the Ontario government’s ban of Facebook over another less popular social networking site called MySpace. Companies are entitled to establish ground rules to regulate employee behaviour, including use of company electronic media equipment to ensure such equipment is not used to damage the employer’s reputation, and guard against time theft or excessive personal use.

The City of Toronto has also followed the province’s lead in blocking employees’ access to Facebook, except those in the offices of the mayor and the city’s 44 councillors. According to city agencies, the reasoning behind this ban is because Facebook has little relevance to municipal work. For Ontario government employees, including MPPs and cabinet ministers, and Toronto municipal employees, Facebook joins the likes of other forbidden sites dealing with pornography, gambling and dating as well as YouTube, a free video viewing website.