Plug Pulled on Md. Legislature's Facebook, MySpace for Fear of Viruses

Narcissism? Pseudo-celebrity? Boredom? Whatever the motivator, Facebook's "25 Things" lists are surely clogging up your news feed.
Narcissism? Pseudo-celebrity? Boredom? Whatever the motivator, Facebook's "25 Things" lists are surely clogging up your news feed. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009; Page B01

Message to the world: The Maryland General Assembly does not want to be your friend.

This week, computer gurus with the state's legislative body announced that they were blocking access to Facebook and MySpace from all General Assembly computers, including those of lawmakers and their staffs.

They said the block was made necessary by an uptick in viruses and malicious software that were finding their way into the assembly's computer network through the popular social networking sites. But legislators who tried visiting Facebook or MySpace soon after and were greeted by "site not found" messages expressed bipartisan outrage yesterday, arguing that the networking tools have become a key way to communicate with constituents.

"It's like blocking cellphones," said Del. Saqib Ali (D-Montgomery), a software engineer, who uses his Facebook page to update constituents about legislation he is sponsoring -- and share cute pictures of his daughter.

"It puts the General Assembly in the Stone Age," said Del. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington).

"This is like China," said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's).

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has a Facebook page. So do both of Maryland's U.S. senators and dozens of state lawmakers. Not to mention President Obama, whose skillful use of the Internet to reach out to supporters has widely been considered a key to his November victory. Neither the U.S. Congress nor the Virginia General Assembly blocks access to the sites, nor does the D.C. Council.

Private corporations and school systems across the country, including the Fairfax and Montgomery districts in the Washington region, have banned the sites. But in many of those cases, the blocks have come out of a desire to prevent workers from wasting time on the job or children from getting inappropriate material from school computers.

In politics, the trend has moved in the opposite direction, as elected officials and activists find more and more ways to use the Internet to get people involved in government.

"It completely ignores the context of what's going on in American society right now," said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.

Germany works with state legislators across the country to help them make better use of the Internet for constituent services and said she was not aware of any other example of statehouses blocking the sites.

Maryland General Assembly Director of Information Services Mike Gaudiello did not respond to a request for comment yesterday about the block, which was first reported by Annapolis attorney and blogger Judd Legum. Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D), said Gaudiello alerted legislative leaders Thursday to an increasing problem with viruses that was threatening the computer network and told them he planned to take the step.

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