Thursday, May 31, 2007

What type of technology user are you?

So, are you an omnivore, a connector or a productivity enhancer? Do you feel connected, but hassled; light, but satisfied; or just plain indifferent? Do you know someone who’s completely off the network?

These are some of the ten distinct groups of users that a recent PEW Internet Study discovered when researching the assets, actions and attitudes of Americans toward information and communication technology (ICT).

The ten groups fit broadly into three categories: high-end or “elite” tech users comprising 31% of American adults, medium or “middle of the road” tech users consisting of 20%, and low-level adopters or those with “few tech assets”, accounting for a whopping 49% of American adults.

Elite Tech Users (31% of American adults)

Omnivores 8% - They have the most information gadgets and services, which they use voraciously to participate in cyberspace and express themselves online and do a range of Web 2.0 activities such as blogging or managing their own Web pages.

Connectors 7% - Between featured-packed cell phones and frequent online use, they connect to people and manage digital content using ICTs – all with high levels of satisfaction about how ICTs let them work with community groups and pursue hobbies.

Lackluster Veterans 8% - They are frequent users of the internet and less avid about cell phones. They are not thrilled with ICT-enabled connectivity.

Productivity Enhancers 8% -They have strongly positive views about how technology lets them keep up with others, do their jobs, and learn new things.

Middle-of-the road Tech Users (20%)

Mobile Centrics 10% - They fully embrace the functionality of their cell phones. They use the internet, but not often, and like how ICTs connect them to others.

Connected But Hassled 10% - They have invested in a lot of technology, but they find the connectivity intrusive and information something of a burden.

Few Tech Assets (49%)

Inexperienced Experimenters 8% - They occasionally take advantage of interactivity, but if they had more experience, they might do more with ICTs.

Light But Satisfied 15% - They have some technology, but it does not play a central role in their daily lives. They are satisfied with what ICTs do for them.

Indifferents 11% - Despite having either cell phones or online access, these users use ICTs only intermittently and find connectivity annoying.

Off the Network 15% - Those with neither cell phones nor internet connectivity tend to be older adults who are content with old media.

This study provides a wealth of information for private sector marketing as well as service planning in the public sector. The fact that almost half of adult Americans make little or no use of ICT, demonstrates that service delivery in the public sector cannot exclude traditional methods, such as television, radio, newspapers and telephone. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are the so-called “elite” for whom ICT is a core component of their lives and who expect ICT to provide all the information and services they require.

Some interesting results about demographics, gender and ethnicity were revealed as well. The typical “omnivore” is a young male in his twenties, while the typical “connector” is a female in her late thirties. “Lackluster veterans” are predominantly white, while “omnivores” are an ethnically diverse group. As exposure to broadband, wireless and other information technologies increasingly happens in schools, the more tech-oriented groups tend to be higher-educated. Not surprisingly, the most tech-oriented groups tend to be decades younger than the least tech-oriented groups.

Given the high adoption rate of cell phone use across all categories, one would expect the availability of WAP-enabled websites and web-based services to increase. Conversely, about 15% of adult Americans don’t have a cellphone and never go online. This “off the network” group, who are in their 60’s and older, are likely to live a long time and are the least likely to transition into new technologies.

While the elites are showing the way of the future, there are a significant number of people with few tech assets who will still require traditional methods of service delivery for many years to come.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Blogvertising: Ethics in advertising for bloggers

Many blogs are using pay-per-click ads to generate revenue and as long as the ads don’t get in the way of the content, most readers don’t really mind. Many bloggers, however, are now providing advertising in the form of paid blog posts that are often disguised as spontaneous product reviews. For the reader, this can be misleading, particularly if the writer doesn’t provide a clear statement to indicate that they are providing a paid review.

For the uninitiated, services such as Pay-Per-Post, Review Me and Sponsored Reviews offer pay to bloggers to post product reviews on their blogs. While it isn’t stated explicitly, the expectation certainly appears to be that the paid posts will be largely positive in tone. Bloggers with high traffic ratings will be paid most, as they obviously have a wider audience. The intent of advertisers is to do more than create good “word of mouth” for their products; they are also looking to drive traffic to their own websites, thereby increasing their own ranking on search engines and thus, ensuring a better hit rate at their point of sale.

So, where’s the harm? I don’t have any issue with bloggers trying to generate revenue through their sites. Blogging can be hard work and time-consuming, so a small pay-off for the time and effort seems fair. It becomes harmful when the blogger has developed a trust relationship with readers and then violates it by not being explicit about the intention of their sponsored posts.

Many bloggers use a disclosure policy and badge, such as those provided at to inform readers that they earn revenue from advertisers and that they may endorse products in their writing. But this kind of “blanket” disclosure policy is not sufficient if readers have no way of knowing which post is an authentic, unpaid and therefore, unbiased commentary and which is a paid, and probably biased product review.

The ethical approach for bloggers is three-fold:

1. If you are planning to introduce advertising and paid reviews to your blog, write a post about it so you inform your readers up-front. If you have been developing a following and a trusted relationship with your readers, you owe it to them to be honest.
2. Post a disclosure policy. If your approach to revenue generation changes, be sure to update your policy accordingly.
3. Provide a disclosure statement at the start of each and every paid post, such as “This is a paid review”. It is unethical to omit the statement and very misleading to leave it as a “gotcha!” at the end of the post.
If you’re an interesting blogger with a reputation for being honest with your readers, they will tolerate the occasional paid post, as long as you’re up-front about it. If you’re not, readers will eventually get wise and move on.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Photos of the new Arivaca Tower

J. Otto Pohl at Otto's Random Thoughts has a link to photos of the Arivaca Tower, which was constructed in just a few days this week. (For the background on this story, please read the following series of posts: SBI#1, SBI#2, and SBI#3.)

The tower is not yet operational, but local citizens are planning to thwart all of the cameras, radar and GPS technology by making full use of recreational land in the immediate vicinity of the tower.
Just a mile and a half from Main Street, it's a perfect place to hike, bike, birdwatch, target practice, picnic, and hold drumming ceremonies on the sacred space it abuts. Let's have some fun!
It will be interesting to see what impact this form of protest will have on the tower's effectiveness in preventing illegal border crossing.

Friday, May 25, 2007

My selections for the Thinking Blogger award

I was selected the other day by Theresa at Sleeping Kitten –Dancing Dog for a Thinking Blogger award. Theresa was recently awarded one herself for writing so eloquently on topics ranging from childhood memories to respecting one’s parents to pride and anger.

The Thinking Blogger meme was started by Ilker Yoldas at The Thinking Blog, with the premise “Too many blogs, not enough thoughts!”. I’m very honoured that Theresa thought that what I’m writing here is thought-provoking, as this blog was intended as a place for me to explore ideas, document my research and hopefully engage others in discussion. I’m pleased to accept the award and pay it forward to five other bloggers because I would like to promote those who think before they write, who do some research, who explore and who ask provocative questions.

In nominating these five*, I want to make it clear that none of them are under any obligation to accept the award, link back to me or to carry on the meme; this is simply an opportunity to point others to blogs that I respect and have come to read regularly:

Adam at One-eyed View – A thought-provoking blogger, writing on everything from technology to politics to the environment to social issues to censorship and popular culture.

Johno at Graphic Design Art and Typography Blog - Explores all of these topics and more. An attractive blog that is also insightful and engaging.

Diamond VVV1 at MyBootsnMe – Exploring regional parks in and around the Vancouver, British Columbia area, with beautiful photos, thoughtful reflections and a style that brings the area to life for the reader.

David at smallSHIFT - This new blog is built around the belief that technology in the hands of passionate users can inspire change, empower individuals and make a difference. This is one to watch.

Stephen at Don’t Trip Up - Extremely well-researched and in-depth analysis of British politics and current affairs, with a centre-left perspective.
I hope you’ll drop by these blogs and see for yourself why they are deserving of the “Thinking Blogger” award.
*Should you choose to participate, please make sure you pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging.

The participation rules are simple:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Unmanned drones secure U.S. borders

It seems the more I read about the U.S. Secure Border Initiative, the less I want to know.

In addition to the networks of towers with radar, video cameras and GPS tracking, Homeland Security will be patrolling sections of the Canadian border with unmanned drones. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), known as the MQ-9 Predator "B" or the "Reaper," is a significantly improved version of a variation of the MQ-1 Predator used by the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan and Iraq. The first will be deployed along the border between North Dakota and Manitoba before the end of 2007.

While fewer than 10,000 people were detained for entering the U.S. illegally via Canada in 2004, U.S. officials are concerned about drug smuggling, terrorist risks and the smuggling of Asian migrants via the northern border.

"What we are looking to build is a virtual fence, a 21st-century virtual fence,"
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and admonished Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. Thirty years later, a virtual wall of surveillance is being constructed along the 49th parallel.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Local Reaction to the Arivaca Tower and SBInet

Imagine the government is planning to build a 98 foot (30 metre) tower on the edge of your small town, where guards monitoring the adjacent national border will use radar and live video streaming to transmit the images and GPS locations of people crossing the border illegally to the laptops of guards waiting on the ground. At any time in this rural area, a 130 decibel "hailer-horn" could sound, disrupting the peace of your day, startling horses and their riders and scattering local birds and wildlife. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

This is the reality facing the residents of Arivaca, Arizona, the town which will serve as the pilot project for U.S. Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative or SBInet. The tower is scheduled to be erected this week. I wrote a few days ago about the privacy concerns this may raise for Canadian and Mexican citizens living near the U.S. borders and the proposed network of 10,000 kilometres (6,213 miles) of towers. J. Otto Pohl, a resident of Arivaca who has been writing about the tower in his blog Otto’s Random Thoughts pointed me to several local articles about the tower and the reaction of local residents. This is an enormous intrusion in their lives and they have been given very little notice and no real consultation by Homeland Security or Boeing.

What is more discouraging is the tremendous cost and apparent failure of this kind of technology in securing the borders. One year ago, The Washington Post wrote about SBI net and the checkered record of similar kinds of multi-billion dollar surveillance technologies:

If the military could seal a 6,000-mile border for $2 billion, Iraq's borders would have been sealed two years ago," said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.
The small town of Arivaca will serve as the proving ground for SBInet and local residents appear to have an uphill battle in ensuring their concerns are heard. Hopefully the amount of international attention given this story will not disappear once the tower goes up.

Meanwhile, under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), Canadians are facing huge line-ups at Passport Offices, as under the new American law every Canadian is now expected to produce a passport when flying across the border and a year from now, in order to cross the border by land. Until recently, a driver’s licence was adequate, particularly for a daytrip of cross-border shopping or visiting family and friends. The United States is implementing the WHTI to increase border security. The initiative stems from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which is based on the 9/11 Commission Report.

Politicians in Canada and the U.S. have often boasted about sharing the longest, undefended border; those days are about to become a distant memory as a vast network of towers and surveillance equipment is erected along the border over the next few years.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

U.S. Border Surveillance Goes High Tech

A high-tech network of nine surveillance towers in Arizona is the first of many more like it to be erected as part of the U.S.’s Secure Border Initiative, the National Post reported today. Residents of the small town with the dubious distinction of serving as a pilot for this initiative are up in arms about the government’s ability to observe and record every public activity in their ordinary lives.

"It's like Big Brother. It will place the whole town under surveillance," said C Hues, a community activist, as residents gathered for a meeting late Tuesday with customs and border patrol representatives.

"The government will be able to watch and record every movement we make, 24 hours a day. It will be like living in a prison yard," she added.

In 2006, over 1 million people were arrested for illegally attempting to cross the Mexican border into the United States. One of the towers to be constructed just south of the town will be 30-metres (98 feet) high and topped with cameras and radar. Images and video captured at the tower will be streamed live to troupers on the ground, along with GPS coordinates.

The ability to monitor the activities of the residents of one town of 1500 may not be a big concern to many people. But the Secure Border Initiative isn’t limited to the little town of Arivaca, Arizona. Over the next few years, similar networks of towers, with cameras and radar will be constructed along over 10,000 kilometres (6,213 miles) of the Mexican and Canadian borders. Conceivably, hundreds of thousands of residents along the borders of all three countries may come under the scrutiny of these cameras.

It isn’t a stretch to be concerned about how this recorded information could be used, given the recent experience of Andrew Feldmar who was barred from entering the U.S. after a border guard googled his name and didn’t like what he read. The residents of Arivaca, Arizona are fighting the construction of the massive surveillance network in their town and I hope that other Americans will be just as alarmed about this attack on privacy.

In the meantime, how will the Mexican and Canadian governments respond to cross-border surveillance of their citizens? Will our right to privacy be traded away in the name of U.S. national security?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Trendspotting: Patterns in Blog Statistics

Has anyone else noticed that their blog statistics regularly peak on Tuesdays? For the past six weeks, this has been the trend in my stats and I wondered if it was the result of my own activity, or if there is some predictable pattern occurring across the blogosphere.

Hits to my blog increase steadily over the weekend, peaking on Tuesdays and then dropping off sharply on Wednesdays, only to start the same climb upward all over again.

I wondered if I tend to spend more time on the care and feeding of and at the weekend and if that might be influencing the numbers. But this past weekend, I spent very little time on those two sites and the pattern is exerting itself once again this week.

Could it be that we all lose energy for visiting blogs and Web surfing mid-way through the work-week? Do we tend to visit other blogs and comment more toward the weekend, leading to a "spill-over" effect that peaks on Tuesdays? I’d be interested to hear if others are noticing this trend or even a different one. Any explanations?

I love a good mystery!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cops want covert cameras in public places

Police in Victoria, British Columbia want to install security cameras in public areas around the provincial capital in a bid to fight crime and reduce vandalism. I wrote an earlier post about the plethora of surveillance cameras in public areas and motorways in the United Kingdom and the concern that this was creating a “surveillance society” there.

What’s different about the Victoria proposal is that while cameras in the U.K are visible to the public, police in Victoria want the cameras to be hidden. The rationale for hiding the cameras from public view is unclear. Visible cameras are designed to serve as a deterrent to crime, with the criticism that they only serve to move crime along to other areas. Hidden cameras are designed to catch criminals in the act, and could be argued to have a wider impact in deterring crime, as no one knows for sure where the cameras are located and when they are being watched.

Meanwhile, in a six-month pilot project, police in Toronto are extending the use of visible closed-circuit cameras from the downtown into residential areas with high crime.

"Wherever the analysis tells us that violence is likely to take place...those
are the areas we will use the technology," said police chief, Bill Blair.

Back in the U.K, police are building on their massive network of fixed cameras, by carrying camcorders with them on the beat in an increased effort to cut crime and reduce "anti-social behaviour. "

Sgt Craig Donald, of the INA's Safer Community Team, said: "Equipping officers with hand-held cameras has had great success elsewhere with reductions in anti-social behaviour and crime being recorded.

"It's a very effective way to secure evidence to support a prosecution and it's certainly a deterrent as people don't usually want to commit a crime if they think there is a chance they could be identified at a later stage."

The reactions from citizens in every jurisdiction where police surveillance cameras are being used is inevitably mixed. Some support the cameras as they believe they will improve social order and reduce crime, and besides, they’re not doing anything wrong. Others object to the intrusion into their privacy and how the very presence of the cameras may alter their decisions. When cameras are visible, people can at least choose to avoid them. Hidden cameras have a greater chilling effect on the average citizen, as they never know when or where they could be filmed.

What if you’re a gay man who regularly attends a local gay bar? Or, you are a concerned citizen who wants to participate in public protest rally against a police or government decision? Or, you’re seeking medical attention and you don’t want anyone to know about it? Would the presence of visible security cameras, or the threat of being monitored by hidden cameras make you think twice before participating in any of these lawful activities?

While the evidence to support the claims that cameras reduce crime is in dispute, the use of this surveillance technology by police is here to stay and citizens need to be informed about how and why it is being used. Police must be held to the highest standard of accountability to ensure transparency and to ensure that privacy laws are not violated. In our efforts to reduce crime and improve social order, we should not trade away our rights to privacy and to participate fully in society without fear.

So, as you go about your business today - do you really know if you’re being watched?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Shooting the messenger : Taking the Internet to court

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of these two men:

Case No. 1: You’re just an average guy who meets a nice girl and you begin dating. After a few months, the new relationship sours and you decide to move on. But your ex-girlfriend doesn’t move on. She is angry and decides to warn everyone about you on a website called Using an anonymous username, she posts a photo of you, along with your full name, city and state and writes an invective-laden comment, accusing you of being a herpes-infected homosexual or bisexual, who passed on a sexually transmitted disease, and fathered numerous illegitimate children. You ask the website owner to pull the post, but learn that your only recourse is to post a comment as rebuttal to the offending post. The original post will remain, searchable to anyone who accesses the site, just by looking up your name.

Case No. 2: You’re a prominent businessman, with clients primarily in the legal and judicial profession. You decide to join a fledgling political party and soon become the party’s campaign manager and financier. You make some decisions that aren’t popular with some of the party members and they use websites such as Wikipedia and P2Pnet to criticize your decisions. But some go further, posting anonymous statements which you maintain are untrue and which you fear will seriously damage your professional and political reputation. You ask the site hosts to remove the offending posts, but they are either unable or unwilling to comply with your requests, or they do not comply quickly enough.

What would you – what could you – do next? Ignore the posts? Put up your own website to refute the libelous statements against you? Try to track down the anonymous posters and sue them? Or, sue the site hosts?

In both cases, the men at the centre of these attacks decided to fight back in court by suing the site hosts.

In the first scenario, Todd Hollis took the owner of website, Tasha Cunningham to court for allowing the posts in the first place and for refusing to pull them down. (Shout out to one-eyed view for bringing this site to my attention. He has an interesting post about it here). The factors leading to the judge’s decision to dismiss the case were not about the damage that may have been done to the plaintiff, nor about the fact that Ms. Cunningham is merely the messenger, not the originator of the message. The decision was made based on old-fashioned jurisdictional law: because the website originates in Florida and the lawsuit was filed in Pennsylvania, it was determined, through statistics from the site’s on-line shop, that few people in Pennsylvania would have seen the site. Therefore, the contacts in Pennsylvania were limited. It seems the door is open for Hollis to re-file his suit in Florida. In the meantime, he is planning to sue the woman who anonymously made the posting, which remains to this day on

In the second scenario, Wayne Crookes decided last month to file suit against three sites: Google, and Because Crookes is Canadian, this case has been filed in British Columbia, Canada. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Crookes says that he is holding the site hosts responsible for the offending anonymous posts:

"I hope that the outcome is that people will realize they have obligations
and that they will be forced to accept responsibility for their actions. The
larger the organization, the greater the expectation that they will be held
accountable for their actions."

Both of these cases have wide implications for site hosts, free speech and anonymity.

Already, the Wikipedia article about Wayne Crookes has been all but expunged to the point that it is challenging to find the posts which ignited the lawsuit in the first place. What chilling effect will this particular lawsuit and others like it have on site hosts, as the laws vary from one jurisdiction to another?

Will more individuals feel less inclined to put their names to posts, even if they strongly feel they are serving a wider public good? Should there be a looser set of criteria for libel if one is a public figure, working in the public trust, such as Mr. Crookes, versus a more rigorous standard for the average citizen, like Mr. Hollis?

Anonymity on the internet is essential to giving a voice to those who might otherwise be silenced. We don’t all live in truly democratic nations, and the Internet is a global community. Even in Western democratic nations, whistleblowers still need extraordinary protections if they choose to go public.

It will be interesting to follow these two cases on both sides of the border – one private citizen, one public figure. How will the judges decide what is more important – the greater good, or the rights of the individual? The odds seem to favour the greater good, which will likely be small comfort to Mr Hollis and Mr. Crookes.

Just put yourself in their shoes.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Yes, I am a librarian!

Evelyn: Look, I... I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O'Connell, but I am proud of what I am.

Rick: And what is that?

Evelyn: I... am a librarian.

From The Mummy (1999) starring Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser

I get some of the most interesting reactions when I tell people that I am a librarian. The most common is “You don’t look like a librarian!”. Oops, sorry, I guess I left my bun and horn-rimmed glasses at home tonight. The second most common reaction is “Oh, so you must really like to read” or – my favourite – “It must be nice to get paid to read books all day”. The most interesting reaction was when I told one of my new neighbours that I had worked as a library manager. Her response was similar to that of someone spitting a mouthful of coffee when they've heard something shockingly funny, then she looked embarrassed and stammered: “I’ve never actually met a librarian before!”.

Well, I certainly didn’t become a librarian for the prestige or the glamour. I decided to become a librarian because I had always enjoyed being in libraries and immersing myself in the world of ideas. All that knowledge that could just be pulled off the shelf to read, and to take home – for free! I liked the idea of teaching people and helping them learn, of being the person who knew just what you were looking for and just where to find it. It was the late 80’s when I decided to do a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, so there was no Internet, not a lot of people had computers in their home (although my Dad bought me and my brother a Commodore VIC-20 way back in 1981!). When I graduated, I was sure that I would be working at the information desk in a public library in a large urban centre somewhere, getting to know the regular customers and their interests, hearing about their families, and generally becoming part of the local community.

It didn’t exactly work out that way, as cutbacks in the public sector in the early 90’s meant there were very few jobs in public libraries. So my career, like many librarians I know, has been decidedly unconventional. Although, unconventional is probably the way most librarians would describe their jobs anyway!

So, to help conquer the stereotype, here is my list of Things You Wouldn’t Think a Librarian Would Do (but I’ve actually done all of these in my library career!):

1. Interview a panel of architects for a new building design
2. Work with a team to develop a handicapped accessible high school library
3. Teach Boolean logic and other search skills to teachers
4. Work with a lawyer to develop a major systems contract
5. Implement a media management system
6. Work as a systems analyst
7. Write software training documentation
8. Manage millions of dollars in budget
9. Implement an electronic document management system
10. Write Requests for Proposal for large-scale projects
11. Test barcode readers for elementary schools, with the assistance of a group of third graders
12. Know the difference between CODABAR and CODE39 barcodes (sad, but true)
13. Investigate RFID technology
14. Oversee the implementation of Self Service Check-out technology

Seventeen years after graduating with an MLIS, I’ve had a very different career than I expected I would, in fact, it seems I’ve had about 3 careers so far. But it’s all been interesting and the qualities that attracted me to librarianship in the first place – curiosity, finding and organizing information, sharing ideas, helping people – have all been essential skills in my career.

So, like Evie Carnahan, I am proud of what I am. Yes, Mr. O'Connell, I ... am a librarian.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Government Bans Facebook … but MySpace is still okay

Employees with the Ontario government who tried to log in to their Facebook accounts this morning were met with an “access denied” message. Even most members of parliament and cabinet ministers have been blocked from Facebook, which joins a list along with online gambling and porn sites. The ban took everyone by surprise, including Public Infrastructure Minister David Caplan, one of the few cabinet ministers with a Facebook page.

The rationale for the ban was rather vague:

"The staff determined it's not as directly related to the workplace as we'd like it to be so we're restricting access to it," Government Services Minister Gerry Phillips told the Toronto Star.

"Our IT (information technology) people are pretty broadly familiar with the marketplace and they said, `Here's a website that's going to be increasingly more popular for the OPS (Ontario public service). Is this an appropriate website to be spending time on?'" he said.

"It's the ministry making these decisions on trying to ... restrict access to ones that are inappropriate and then to anticipate where one may grow in popularity and we may end up with a lot of OPS time being taken (up) on it."

When even the Canadian Prime Minister has a page on Facebook, it obviously is considered an important way for politicians to get their message out. Any employer has the right to restrict the sites that employees access from employer networks and governments are accountable to taxpayers for ensuring that employees are productive on the job. Most public sector employers have policies in place which outline appropriate use of the Internet, and in many cases, employees are required to sign a document that goes into their permanent record.

The vague rationale for this ban and the fact that other social networking sites, including MySpace, are still accessible to government employees and ministers does raise questions. One has to wonder if the Ontario government was really concerned about the amount of time that employees and elected officials were spending on Facebook or if they were actually more concerned about what information might be shared on a popular public forum.

Either way, it seems that it will become increasingly difficult for employers to stay on top of the many ways that employees can become distracted by online activities from the work they’re paid to do. In the meantime, I suspect many employees will move along to MySpace or other social networking sites … until the Ontario government denies access to those as well.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Facebook: Student lessons on libel

Some students in Toronto are getting a primer on libel and ethics this week, as they were banned from a class trip as punishment for making false accusations about a teacher on Facebook. In the most recent incident, a group of Grade 8 students jokingly accused a teacher of masturbating in class. There have been two similar incidents in Ontario in recent months, according to this Canadian Press story:

"The principal implemented our progressive discipline policy, and so no, there are no new developments," Robert Dunn, superintendent of the York Region District School Board, said when asked if the punishment was being re-thought. The action follows two other recent high-profile incidents in the province.

Five teenagers were suspended last month from Toronto's Birchmount Park Collegiate for writing inappropriate remarks about staff. In February, 19 students who blamed their principal for school policies on cellphone use, and took their gripe online, were suspended from Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School in Caledon East, northwest of Toronto.

Part of the problem may lie in the expectations students have of the Internet. "Kids don't think of those places as public places," said Annie Kidder of the group People for Education. In a recent Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for Microsoft Canada, 70 per cent of respondents aged 10 to 14 said they believe the information they put online is private.

It is clear that the line between private and public is blurring as people increasingly use social networking technologies to share their most intimate thoughts and ideas. In the most recent case, a teacher’s reputation and career could have been put on the line as his name was associated with inappropriate conduct on the job, whether done jokingly or not. According to Canadian Defamation Law, these kinds of false accusations certainly seem to fit the interpretation of libel. From Duhaime Law (emphasis in italics are mine):

Defamation was well described in a 1970 British Columbia Court of Appeal decision called Murphy v. LaMarsh: (Defamation is where) a shameful action is attributed to a man (he stole my purse), a shameful character (he is dishonest), a shameful course of action (he lives on the avails of prostitution), (or) a shameful condition (he has smallpox). Such words are considered defamatory because they tend to bring the man named into hatred, contempt or ridicule. The more modern definition (of defamation) is words tending to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally.

The major points of defamation law in Canada are as follows:
- Defamation is a "strict liability" tort. In other words, it does not matter if the defamation was intentional or the result of negligence. Defamatory material is presumed to be false and malicious. "Whatever a man publishes", according to one case, "he publishes at his peril."
- Defamation must be a direct attack on an actual reputation, not an alleged reputation that a "victim" believes they deserve. A judge will assess the statement against the evidence of the victim's reputation in their community.
- The remarks must be harmful (i.e. "defamatory") and this will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Some statements are clearly defamatory. Other statements would only be defamatory to the person targeted by the remarks. What may be a nonsensical or mildly offensive remark to one person may constitute serious defamation to another. The judge will consider the situation of the person defamed in assessing the claim of defamation.
- The defamatory remark must be clearly aimed at the plaintiff. General, inflammatory remarks aimed at a large audience would not qualify as the remarks must be clearly pointed at a specific person.
- The defamatory remarks must be somehow conveyed to a third party. Private defamation just between two parties causes no reputation damage to reputation because there are no other persons to be impacted by the remarks. With libel, the damage is presumed as it is published.

Posting these kinds of accusations on Facebook or in a blog is no different from publishing them in a book or a newspaper. So, I think that teaching administrators are taking the right approach by suspending the privileges of students who make these kinds of false accusations, in order to help them and other students understand the seriousness of their actions and the potential consequences to individuals who are the target.

In Canada, teacher-librarian associations have been advocating for over a decade for an Information Literacy curriculum to provide students with the knowledge and skills to understand the opportunities and risks of web-based information. Students need to understand their rights to free speech, as well as their legal obligations, and based on these incidents, they need it early.