Humans have a natural proclivity to want what they cannot have. Our insatiable appetite for sharing information, combined with the nearly limitless ways to access the web have thus far frustrated the most sophisticated attempts to block access to social media services.
From the Great Firewall of China to the public schools of Britain, IT security experts are finding that restricting Internet access can have the unintended consequences of civic backlash, poor worker productivity, and students unprepared for cyber threats. Here are a few examples that illustrate the ban and backfire.
My own university bans the Internet in some large lecture halls. Yet, when I wander in back of the room before lecture, I see students hunched over cell phones, the signature blue and white colors of Facebook (), and an inordinate number of students camped out near the perimeter of the hall, where a weak wi-fi signal permeates the room.
Meanwhile, some schools in Britain have chosen to “lock down” their systems, allowing access to only verified websites. However, a report from their government’s department of education found that “this approach had disadvantages in the schools visited. As well as taking up time and detracting from learning, it did not encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions.”
Additionally, children were less likely to understand proper Internet safety when outside of school. By contrast, in those schools that took a more educative approach to e-safety, teachers could use incidents of phishing, cyber-bullying, and inappropriate material as a way to discuss how such encounters should be dealt with in the future. Indeed, in at least one high school where cell phone use was part of the curriculum, the principal noted that inappropriate use of technology is exceedingly rare.
In other words, blocking access to social media sites may ultimately prove more distracting — and potentially more dangerous — to students.
In the Workplace
I once worked the night shift at a business that attempted to ban Internet access. Not only did I spend my time figuring out ways to circumvent the ban, and then even more time masking my browsing footsteps, but other employees were finding ways to visit sites that were certainly “not safe for work.”
A recent survey found that 54% of companies report banning access to social media. The debate over whether Internet browsing is good or bad for productivity will likely be a war waged deep into the tenure of the next generation’s workplace. However, IT workplace experts warn of an inevitable backlash.
Ontario Privacy Commissioner Anna Cavoukian noted that “Employees tend to re-route around a blog, go to another server, and find other ingenious ways of doing what they want to. And these rerouting efforts may actually be even more time consuming.”
“No matter what, people will find ways to socialize and share during work hours,” according to Jeremy Buron, CEO of Serena Software. So long as social media sites will be utilized, “why not encourage them to channel their social media impulses in smart, safe ways that can potentially help your business?”
Finally, unlike schools or governments, employees are free to leave any time. A recent survey found that 39% of 18-24 year-olds would consider quitting social media-restricted workplaces. While I have yet to see businesses tout their browsing policies at my University’s career fairs, I imagine that bragging about unrestricted Internet use would actually turn some well-educated heads.
Being a dictator used to be so much simpler: Unruly journalists were few, and easily identifiable; editors could be intimidated or bribed; and newspapers could be physically obstructed from dissemination. These days, if a political faction really wants to control information, they’ll have to take North Korea’s strategy, and wall themselves off from the world, causing widespread poverty and stunting innovation.
Countries such as China and Iran, with similar levels of authoritarianism, but relatively more open economic markets, are having considerable trouble banning social media. Though popular social media sites are restricted in China, one report estimates that 92% of Chinese netizens are social media users, and that cracking the government’s firewall is not uncommon. Additionally, the government has faced widespread public embarrassment over ongoing tensions with Google.
Iran has faced its own unique set of problems. In response to what was perceived as the illegitimate re-election of hard-line nationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country erupted in violent protests. Citizen journalists posting on Twitter () and YouTube () became some of the only reliable sources of information to leak from the government-imposed media blackout. One year later, Ahmadinejad is still in power, but experts agree that the once solid status of the presidential incumbent and the reigning religious council has been seriously undermined.
Venezuela is the most recent regime to take on social media, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the country’s wobbly support of Hugo Chavez. If Iran and China are any indication, it will not be smooth sailing.
Restricting access to information is fighting the force of a global movement towards greater participation.
Organizations that choose to block social media with an iron fist should plan to expend significant resources to enforce these rules. Additionally, there is the missed opportunity to use your citizens and employees as leverage in the all-out branding war.
When schools restrict Internet access, we leave the important topic of cyber safety to the half-baked theories of childhood peers, or worse, to the friendly stranger students inevitably find themselves chatting with. Whatever the organizational reaction to social media is, the human response to restriction is universal: Forbidden fruit looks so much tastier.
Why Banning Social Media Often Backfires