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The Government Blocks Twitter No It Doesn't

In a recent CSPAN interview, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that, “for some reason, Twitter is blocked on White House computers,” which created a minor frenzy among tech-savvy journalists ranging from UPI to The Hill. Later, news upstart Mediaite uncovered that the New Media team in the Old Executive Office Building could indeed access Twitter, but other people working on White House staff do not necessarily share the same privileges. This is all very interesting, but this story is far bigger than the White House, because it serves as a metaphor for rules governing social media tool use for the thousands of employees working throughout the Federal government.

Decisions about which social media sites are allowed in the Executive Branch are somewhat inconsistent, as I pointed out in a Department of Defense research paper earlier this year. Often without explanation or transparency, different agencies and even offices within agencies have different policies about use of social media platforms on the Web. Additionally, even when public affairs employees are allowed to use tools like Twitter and YouTube to communicate, they are sometimes blocked by different authorities at work from using them. So, in a gray area, they employ workarounds using personal laptops, iPhones, and the like.

Such internal contradiction cannot last long. Eventually there will have to be consistent, widely-known policy guidance about what sites can be used, and by whom, and why. And as the workforce age structure changes, and lines between professional and personal increasingly blur, employees will demand access to these sites more. Some sites may legitimately be blocked, but currently, there are a hodgepodge of rules that are often confusing, and possibly make the overall situation worse. Here, I propose two arguments for not blocking most social media sites on most government computers.

One, blocking social media sites does little for safety and security. The statement “Twitter is blocked” typically means that the domain Twitter.com is rendered inaccessible from a government Web browser. The downside to blocking sites this way is that there are simple mechanisms for alternatively accessing the underlying software (Twitter.com can be accessed from TweetGrid.com, YouTube.com from videos.Google.com, and so forth). Hence, official computers can access the same sites through different portals. Employees may also turn to nearly ubiquitous personal devices like BlackBerries to use social media during work hours. Finally, there are many “clones” of sites like Twitter and YouTube; are Identi.ca, Plurk, and similar microsharing sites also blocked? Thus, some employees effectively use the same social networks to send and receive the same information, with all of it being harder to monitor. This is not a recipe for good cyber-security of government systems or employee information.

Two, blocking social media platforms does little for government efficiency, transparency, and citizen engagement. True, when used poorly, sites like Twitter and YouTube are a distraction from official duties and a time-sink. But the same can be argued about phones, email, and even the cafeteria. When used responsibly, however, social media provides real-time information about critical news, helps employees working on similar topics within the government find and communicate with each other, allows the discovery of work-related conferences and other events, helps people better understand how technology is influencing overseas incidents like the Iranian election protests, conversing with citizens about microniche issues related to the office one works in, and countless other worthwhile applications. Blanket social media bans empower information to fall through the cracks rather than get to people who could use it.

Three reasonable steps should be taken. First, top-level government information assurance analysts need to determine what security risks various common social media websites pose to the government; they should be “binned” into categories like “Use only on non-military computers” or “Not for government system use.” Second, policies need to be transparent, consistent, and well-publicized across the government; employees will frown on radically different policies being applied in different buildings on Independence Avenue, or on different Army bases in Virginia. Third, employees and contractors working in government facilities need to be educated about the positive and negative aspects of using social media websites, just as they are about other aspects of cyber-security and other government procedures.

These three steps should counteract possibly less secure employee workarounds, and go a long way towards the more open, transparent, and participatory government that the President proposed in the first memo he disseminated after taking office. Interestingly, while the U.S. debates whether or not certain computers can and cannot access Twitter, across the pond the U.K. has released an official government template for how to use Twitter – it’s a 20-page document offering practical advice, and uploaded online using Scribd for the entire world to see. Just as we look to other countries for ideas about how we can improve transportation, health care and the like, we might include social media on that list.

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  • http://GovTwit.com Steve Lunceford

    Note that the UK’s Twitter guide joins similar efforts from HHS (http://bit.ly/iMrVM) & USA.gov (http://bit.ly/3bBCHV) that launched a couple of weeks ago.

  • Mary Maher

    Amen to that!

  • http://twitter.com/robotchampion Steven Mandzik

    Nice post mark, i was just talking to Steve Ressler of @govloop about this. We were joking that the Iranians and Chinese block these sites as well. Though they claim to block them for tyrannical reasons. Llike preventing western ideals from penetrating their soft minds or whatever.

    I wonder what the reasons are at any fed gov sites or business that do block social media sites? Its prob even worse reasons like ‘forcing our employees to work’ or maybe even insidious fakery like ‘takes up too much bandwidth’.

  • http://www.mobilechamps.com PK

    Wonderful article to brood on The author has brought out so much information on this hotly debated issue the world we live in…all of us know that it is Twitter that helped bring out news stuff from Egypt to China..
    http://iphone.mobilechamps.com

  • http://Twitter.com/Surface_Sailor Surface_Sailor

    I expierence what you’ve written about everyday aboard my ship. Despite having NETWARCOM dictating to Afloat Commands there still are major differences in what is blocked. The work-arounds are all well known, major issues in cyber defense are poorly articulated to Sailors, and my work is hugly impacted. The biggest challenge comes from technology not being adopted concurently in the Navy. Most of my work (I’m a Yeoman– admin type) can only be submitted via email. Yet there is that odd form which has to be faxed, and only faxed. Email is the primary method of submission, yet there are bug prone websites that must be, sometimes, utilized. All this is combined with the operational reality of EMCON conditions, where there is no connectivity, or with equipment being OOC. In the “A” school for my rate no computer training is give outside of word processing and typing. Because of all this I whole hearted agree with your words. With the addition of hardware also being plauged with similar issues of inconsistent implementation.

  • http://markdrapeau.com/about Mark Drapeau

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Surface_Sailor. It’s my hope that people like you working around the world but affected by DC-based policy decisions will increasingly read posts like this and give feedback, so that eventually some of these thorny issues can be worked out.

  • SayWhat

    LOL…”such internal contradiction cannot last long”…you’re forgetting whom it is that you’re writing about…”employees will demand access to these sites more”…you once again forget about who is in control, it’s not the employees, there are reasons that there’s a boss and workers, call it a totem-pole system…argument #2, once again, you’re forgetting about whom you are writing…blanket social media bans??? didn’t you say the policies are inconsistent, that’s hardly a blanket…unless you mean a blanket of inconsistency…the 3 steps are “OK” at best but will never work, and BTW if we follow the same avenue as the UK regarding policies we will soon slip into the same health care nighmare dilema their citizenry faces on a daily basis…

  • http://markdrapeau.com/about Mark Drapeau

    Even though you work at a gigantic “Beltway Bandit” company that has an interest in the status quo “SayWhat” many people do not have the same interests as you. You may think that the employees are not in control, but if everyone working for the government under the age of 30 threatened to quit tomorrow that would be a huge bargaining chip. Obviously that’s extreme, but the government to some extent does need to cater to the needs of the workforce, otherwise the private sector will scoop them up at ever increasing rates and the government will lose some of its most creative and talented young people.

  • Bob

    Mark is absolutely correct about people leaving government service. I just recently did so myself, for a variety of reasons, but many of them could be related back to this subject. Generally, failure to innovate and adapt.

  • Kelcy

    I would add one more step to the three that you have already outlined which would be to add resources for training and self-help on a site like “security.gov” where government employees and the public could find information quickly (to include alerts), share ideas on protecting information, report problems, and perhaps even develop training using some of the new techologies for mashing up data and authoring story lines. This would fall in with out USG sites like data.gov and recovery.gov.

  • http://www.iyogi.net/ simmondia

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Surface_Sailor,The work-arounds are all well known, major issues in cyber defense are poorly articulated to Sailors, and my work is hugly impacted.

  • Michelle Hooper

    Twitter is working good in both UK and USA…So Government need to promote this site more and more…You are getting latest updates on twitter through various tweets..

  • http://www.positie1.nl/online-geld-verdienen-met-twitter/ Twitter

    I think that it also has to do with the age difference between those who use social media and those who make those policies. Often the second group doesn’t use social media and don’t see the benefits, but only the danger. So it has to with the generation now in charge and their look upon the world. Won’t change rapidly…