For years, Facebook access has been a vexing issue for the Legislature. Lawmakers have even joked that it’s second only to oil taxes in the amount of controversy it stirs up. On Wednesday, the committee that sets office rules for the Capitol finally approved a policy for staff use of the social networking site.
When an employer decides whether or not to allow Facebook access, the concern is usually over office productivity. But if the employer happens to be the Alaska State Legislature, there are some weightier questions involved, like “Do my Facebook communications count as public records?” and “Under what circumstances would my postings count as politicking?” Lawmakers have been debating Facebook use for years, and Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the Legislative Council, wanted to settle on a policy once and for all.
“Frankly, this committee should have taken action in the 27th Legislature to resolve this and it did not,” said Hawker.
Before Wednesday, legislators could access Facebook themselves, under a set of temporary rules. Their staff could use the social networking site on their behalf, and press secretaries also had access.
But the stopgap policy did not include the Legislature’s non-partisan offices — like ethics and auditing staff — who said they wanted access to the site to investigate complaints. For example, the Office of the Ombudsman, which looks into grievances against state government, has needed to use Facebook for child custody cases. Staff was required to do that from personal devices and after hours.
The committee ultimately expanded access to them. But approval of the new policy was not unanimous, and it was cobbled together through multiple votes. A couple of lawmakers simply thought Facebook had no place in the Capitol at all.
But Sen. Peter Micciche, a Republican from Soldotna, argued that seriously restricting Facebook would have been like banning e-mail twenty years ago.
“The world changes, and there’s a whole demographic of folks that I communicate with about legislative affairs and legislative issues and community meetings and committee meetings on Facebook that often don’t communicate in any other way,” said Micciche.
Micciche also joked that his staff “will not be posting pictures of their cats on state time.” Use of Facebook must still comply with the larger rule that any online activity must be for legislative purposes.
No specific policies exist for other social networking sites like Twitter and Instagram.