More social communications joy in the Vatican

More social communications news from the Vatican!

MySpace, Facebook users at Vatican hit firewalls

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Vatican employees are now banned from accessing some social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace while at work[You know the old story.  John XXIII was asked how many people work in the Vatican.  He said, "About half."  But I don’t imagine that Facebook et al. are really going the reduce productivity that much.  The coffee breaks, maybe.]

People trying to poke a friend or post a status update on their Facebook page from a computer connected to the Vatican network will instead hit a powerful firewall that says the requested page cannot be viewed because it does not fulfill the network’s "access protection criteria.[I have experienced this infuriating page in a residence for priests who travel to Rome, a sacerdotal hotel as it were.]

The Vatican spokesman said the move is a "normal and prudent" measure that reflects similar strategies taken by other companies around the world that have blocked employee usage of social networking sites on office networks.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the spokesman, told Catholic News Service June 16 that "there is nothing surprising" about the new ban[You can say that again.]

Like many employers, the Vatican has long had firewalls installed on its network to block access to pornography, online gambling, and, according to the firewall warning page itself, any site that contains "inappropriate material." [Apparently the internet office of the Vatican doesn’t consider anyone adult enough to budget their time properly.  There is, of course, the risk that some idiot would use the internet connect provided the Holy See to visit bad sites.  Someone who cared and who was checking IP addresses of visitors might be amused to see that the IP sis registered to "Amministratizione della Patrimonia della Santa Sede".  But this is being too restrictive by a long shot.]

Some Vatican employees noticed in late May that social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace were now being blocked. Other information sharing sites like Twitter, YouTube and Flickr were still accessible as of June 16[I suspect their days are numbered.]

Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told CNS June 16 that the ban on social networking sites on an office computer network "is a fairly normal and prudential measure."

His office has been strongly encouraging the church to get more involved in using new digital media. It unveiled a new "Pope2you" Facebook application [Which Vatican employees cannot see now.] in May which lets people send and receive "virtual postcards" of the pope along with inspiring text culled from his various speeches and messages.

Pope Benedict XVI has urged everyone, especially young people, to use the new media in positive ways[Except if you are in a Vatican office.]

When asked why the Vatican would institute the bans after it has been promoting these new forms of communication, Father Lombardi said the two things were not related. [They sure aren’t!]

Extending the firewall to include some social networking sites "is a rule concerning the internal use of work-related equipment in the office," he said.  [Fair enough.  If someone was spending the whole day online, that would be wrong: in justice employers deserve work for the wage they pay, etc.]

Msgr. Tighe said he believed online social networking is more appropriate from home and not the office.

Some Vatican employees said they were amused or outright angered by the Facebook ban.

One employee who asked not to be named said, "It’s understandable that people who grew up without computers would be upset that people are using (these social networking sites) on work time, but Facebook has replaced e-mail and has become a major news source."  [Yes… and these tools could, potentially, by a major leak source as well.]

The Vatican employee said a ban on Facebook makes it much harder to keep in contact with individuals and issues that are intricately tied to their work. Also, when phone lines are down in Italy or in a country they are trying to call, Facebook is the way they can get in contact, the employee told CNS.  [As the rest of the world surges ahead in the use of new tools of communication, the Holy See is crawling into the 21st century.]

Banning Facebook indicates a lack of knowledge about how the Internet functions and how it can be a valuable work tool, the employee said.

[This is good…] For example, Facebook users immediately posted news that in an interview aired Jan. 21 traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X had claimed that reports about the Holocaust were exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers[But… now employees of the Vatican won’t be able to access some tool, in their offices, which could help them stay in contact with certain sources of information and therefore avoid embarassing moments.  I am not thinking so much of Facebook, but other tools.]

One Vatican employee said he read about the interview on his Facebook newsfeed Jan. 22, two days before the Vatican made public Pope Benedict’s decree to lift the excommunication of Bishop Williamson and three other bishops[Oppps.]

"If Vatican cardinals had had their Facebook newsfeed going, they could have nipped that one in the bud," he said, referring to the controversy that erupted about why the Vatican would go forward with lifting an excommunication after the bishop’s objectionable comments had been televised.

"Given the Vatican’s foul-up with communication in the past, (the online networking ban) shows they haven’t learned their lesson," the employee said.

Well… I guess the old technology battle-cry I coined years ago when working there still applies!

"Yesterday’s technology tomorrow!"

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Maureen says:

    Speaking of social networking, Father, don’t you think you should free up the comments for the “big surprise” post and move it up top? The news has been up on the cathedral webpage for a couple of hours now, and it is pretty cool.

  2. Nathan says:

    I understand the frustruation with the “we don’t want employees wasting time on Facebook” argument. What do you think about the argument that a dicastery might want to keep it’s official business in official channels? How much would someone’s innocent comment on Facebook about their day in the office be used as fodder for “the Vatican says…” elsewhere?

    Since I don’t know the Curia, I thought of the example of a parish. If, say, the Religious Ed director, thinking that the Facebook page was only read by friends, posts something unthinkingly about parish personnel or financial discussions, or vents their frustration with the time Father decided to have CCD, it can easily become divisive if it becomes publicized–and once out on the web, it’s publicized (and easily googled)for a long, long, time.

    I agree, Father, that the Roman Curia (and parishes, for that matter) need to become skilled in the use of social networking. How do we use it and still protect privacy and peoples’ reputations? How can a pastor make a decision unpopular with staff and make sure that the disagreement stays where it belongs?

    It’s easy to see on blogs where both the Eighth Commandment and the virtues of charity and prudence are trashed, how can the Curia minimize that with the social networking tools?

    And yes, I guess this does make me a middle-aged luddite.

    In Christ,

  3. Hidden One says:

    Well, I imagine that there’s an exception for the developers of the Pope2You Facebook application (whose personal English is atrocious and whose translator assistants aren’t the best either and who refuse help/corrections, alas). There should be exceptions for a group of people actively monitoring the news via Facebook etc… but I certainly understand the general ban.

  4. Ottaviani says:

    I wish the Vatican was as diligent in banning dangerous heretical books and films as it was banning facebook and Myspace.

  5. Martin says:

    Father, how many organisations that understand and care about security do you know which let their employees access SNS from the company?

    Clue: start with deferal sites. How many .gov or .mil sites allow Facebook access?

    And the reason is? I’ll give you a clue: it’s nothing to do with censoring what employees do.

    If you are in Rome and so keen to use SNS, do it from your home or hotel, or do it from an Internet cafe. Why should your employer risk his network to allow you (at best) to tell the world “I’m not on the train – I’m at work”?

  6. Jayna says:

    The computers may have Facebook and MySpace banned, but how many of these people have iPhones, Blackberry’s, etc. that can allow them access to social networking sites at work but not on their computers? It’ll cut it down somewhat, but so many people have internet on their phones now that it hardly eradicates the problem.

  7. Ray from MN says:

    Speaking as a blogger of three years duration, and someone who spends a tremendous amount of time on the Internet and as one who doesn’t like restrictions:

    I looked at my stats for the past month, dropping a couple of weeks where somehow I must have posted something that people liked. In the other weeks, my stats drop anywhere from 20 to 40 percent on weekends.

    That doesn’t prove that people are reading me at work (anyplace they do it is fine by me), but it does leave a jarring suspicion.

    Think how much productivity worldwide is lost by people who are addicted to Fr. Z and read him at work!

  8. GOR says:

    “Banning Facebook indicates a lack of knowledge about how the Internet functions and how it can be a valuable work tool, the employee said.”

    Yeah, right. And how often is the “valuable work tool” actually used for work and not for personal purposes…? The Internet in all its forms can be a very useful tool in any workplace. It also can be a colossal time-waster for those who are not diligent in their work. I suspect, given Papa Giovanni’s remark, that the Vatican is no different from other workplaces where time is whiled away on personal tasks instead of the work at hand.

    You can justify anything and, as a retired IT manager, I’ve heard all the excuses. Do the work you’re assigned when you’re at work. Anything else, do it on your own time!

  9. JoeyG says:

    I know it’s a different spelling, but do you think the good Monsignor is related to the Colonel from Battlestar Gallactica? That WOULD explain the restrictiveness…

  10. Joan Moore says:

    Father – I’d be willing to bet that 95% of people on facebook, yahoo, etc, etc while at work are NOT doing the work they were hired for!

    I have seen many people in the department I’ve been working in quickly hiding the Internet page when their boss is approaching – something they wouldn’t do if it was actually for work purposes.

    When people are surfing the net at work. most of the time they are stealing from their employer in the form of salary not earned!

    I fully support what the Vatican is doing with these restrictions.

  11. It’s all a matter of self-discipline, I think. Facebook is just one among the many distractions (eg. news websites, blogs, chats, etc.) prevalent in the workplace. One good practice is to set some sort of time (perhaps lunch time?) where one can just do these online stuff and then focus on work for the rest of the day. Seems easier said than done, I must admit! :)

  12. Cassandra says:

    The tech-savvy folks who are using these for work-purposes probably already know many of the easy ways around internet-censors…or any high school kid who’s wanted to go on facebook during class could tell them.

  13. TNCath says:

    Honestly, I can understand why the Vatican would want Facebook and MySpace banned from their offices. They are truly wastes of time. Don’t get me wrong: I like the Internet and email as much as anyone else, but they are as much a curse as well as a blessing on society. As a teacher, I can attest to that first hand. We have given our children access to an infinite amount of information. However, their ability to retain knowledge decreases every year. I applaud the Vatican’s caution with the use of the Internet.

  14. Ben D. says:

    Speaking as an IT manager of 5 years, I’d say there are a couple of problems with this sort of approach:

    1. It can’t be done. People who really want to use things like Facebook and Twitter will figure out how to get around the controls. See the current use of Twitter in Iran, and then see Jayna’s comment above for one simple example of a workaround.

    2. Time-wasting on the job is a management problem, not a technology problem. Granted, the web generally, and social networks in particular, provide novel ways to waste time. But Tim Berners-Lee did not invent sloth.

  15. Cel says:

    Banning websites because of viruses and trojans is one thing and social websites tend to have more than their share because of the high amount of traffic from diverse sources. But you will still need to protect your network from other sites using other tools so I am not so sure the argument holds.

    Specifically blocking certain sites always seems like a good solution at first but it usually becomes an administrative nightmare. Some people will need exceptions so they will have to go get approvals from their bosses and soon their are so many holes in the firewall that it looks more like the screen in front of your fireplace.

    It also doesn’t stop people from leaking information that they shouldn’t. You can restrict them from doing so from work but then they just update facebook when they get home from work. What needs to be taught is that you don’t leak certain information at all, at any time. You don’t air your frustrations about work on your facebook page and things like that. Besides, even at work there is still email, phones, cellphones, pda’s and so on. If they are the type to blab, the blab will find a way out. People need to be taught the etiquette and ethics of using new media. Not simply banned from using a certain portion of it at certain times in certain locations.

    One company I worked for had a surprisingly effective way of restricting internet traffic. The policy was that the internet should only be used during work hours for work related business. During breaks and after hours it could be used prudently for personal business so long as it wasn’t inappropriate according to the judgment of management. It was intentionally vague. Basically you could check you bank account or the weather or news on breaks, that sort of thing. Obviously you couldn’t go to obscene websites at anytime and so on.

    The beauty was in how it was enforced. Every website you visited was logged by the proxy server to an internal webpage on the company intranet that anyone could access. Basically your browser history was (company-wide) public knowledge. Everyone was shown this page when they started working there. Nobody specific was assigned to watch it or anything but obviously your supervisor knew about it as did everyone else. Simply put, you never went to a website that you could not justify to your boss or whomever may ask. It worked very well. People are the best judges of what they should be doing and where they should be going so long as they are honest about it. This amount of transparency made people honest.

  16. Ben D. says:

    @Cel: “Basically your browser history was (company-wide) public knowledge”.

    That’s brilliant. Especially delightful if it was egalitarian — were management and the IT folks subject to this as well?

  17. The Federal Government has recognized the benefits of such tools as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, when it comes to getting information to the public in an expedient manner. I don’t work with this subject directly, but I know the people who do. You can see the links yourself at these locations:

  18. David says:

    Why are you so upset, Father? Don’t you think that Vatican employees have better things to do with their time than surf the web? I know the internet is a useful tool, but how useful is facebook, really? Really?

    Sharing personal information with every sicko in the world and their uncles, the very same information Americans constantly complain should be their right to keep private, and looking up current pictures of your high school graduating class hotties isn’t exactly the kind of useful purposes the internet can and should have at work.

    I’m always uncomfortable when clerics complain about being held to the same work standards as the lay faithful. If it’s inappropriate to surf facebook in the office at a steel mill, it’s equally inappropriate for a priest to surf facebook while supposedly working.

    As someone who uses the internet frequently, both at work and home, I readily realize and admit that there are appropriate and inappropriate uses of the internet, and that it calls for, above all, self-policing, since we are all adults. However, when the internet connection is paid for by any given institution, that institution that flips the bill has more than enough justification to limit access as it sees fit. If it’s OK and even necessary for Whirlpool to put limitations on internet access, it’s perfectly OK for the Vatican, which has far more weightier matters to consider.

  19. Joe says:

    You don’t need to be an old fogy to think that jumping on the bandwagon of every trick Microsoft dreams up to get your money is not guaranteed to make you hip, cool, or a more effective communicator. We have certainly seen recently that even with all these bells and whistles it can still take a long time for things like oh say interviews with bishops that are posted on-line to get to the people who need to know about them.

  20. Hidden One says:

    Can we agree that banning MySpace was a good idea? I haven’t seen any complaints about it.

  21. michigancatholic says:

    This is actually quite normal for large networks. I see nothing at all wrong with the provider (company, church, research facility) controlling the access proportional to work need. And honestly, not many people need Facebook & MySpace to accomplish their jobs.

    Twitter, in particular, can be very dangerous in a corporate, research or other information-restricted line of work because it’s a huge vector for information leaks. The instantaneous quality of it makes it worse than online email sites and thumb drives, specifically because research has shown that people will type things into the internet that they would never say face-to-face and breaches of confidentiality can happen very quickly with Twitter and blogs. A lot of people just don’t think as fast as they can type.

  22. michigancatholic says:

    I agree with David on some of these things. There’s a certain kind of curious, but very real, asceticism that goes with being a Catholic layperson in the work world and things like this are part of it. For those of you who’ve ever been a corporate trip and had a job to do on that trip and not much time for anything else, such that you had to be very disciplined and make responsible choices, you know what I’m talking about.

    We have jobs to do to support families and live as laypeople, and Facebook and the like aren’t usually part of them at work. At. All. Let’s be serious here. When things are provided for work, they need to be used reasonably and responsibly. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal to check the weather or look at your email, but if you’re doing it all the time, well. Why?

    Using work, church, school facilities in certain ways, particularly during work hours, can be quite sinful as can running off with armfuls of printer paper, cartridges and all that kind of stuff for your own home use. This is especially true if you risk damaging the company/church/school’s reputation with the material or on the service provided for your work. I’m serious. It can be a sort of stealing.

  23. Charles Collins says:

    I think it depends on what your job involves. If it involves “networking” or other issues in which keeping in contact with people is important, then banning Facebook would be counter-productive.

    Also, many jobs (including at the Vatican) have a lot of downtime – where there isn’t anything to do. In these cases, banning Facebook is just removing one of many time-wasting activities.

  24. Larry says:

    michigancatholic has it quite right. People who are working are being paid by their employer to do a job. If their job is done then they can play; but, not using the “company’s” toys. Wasted time on computers is among the most serious issues coporations and I seriously doubt that the Vatican is immune to this problem.

  25. Matt Q says:

    IMO, this is not about the Vatican’s reluctance in accepting new technology. It’s a workplace issue and I think the Church has every right to say what one can and can’t do at the office. This is a performance issue and foot-dragging or denying new technology.

    When it comes to keeping the goings-on at work at work, that’s a bogus argument. All the “innocent” comments or whatnot which might be “off-handedly” mentioned in a post can just as easily be done in an email. So… no angst over that?

    If the Church wants to tighten the workplace rules, then how about dealing with these Clerics who are deliberately thwarting the Holy Father’s efforts at reforming the Novus Ordo and the SSPX reconciliation? That is very much a performance issue also.

  26. As Moderator of the Curia in my diocese I have to protect the interests of the Bishop and Diocesan Trustees when it comes to the use of IT by diocesan employees in the Curial Offices. A similar restriction is in place, and is standard commercial and charity practice in UK. It is partly a question of time wastage, partly a question of unofficial statements being attributed to the diocese, and partly possible access to inappropriate sites – something that has happened despite the traceability of the person! Exceptions can be made and are made, e.g. for the Diocesan Youth Service, but the argument must be made for each site.

  27. Nancy Reyes says:

    actually it’s a fairly routine block for work sites…

    Ironically, the US Army blocked the sites, but now has started unblocking such sites because it was bad for morale.

    And let’s not forget the Great Firewall of China.

  28. Dr. S. Petersen says:

    “Anyone” is singular and takes the singular pronoun “his”.

  29. Br. Conrad O.F.M. says:

    As someone who used to work in Security and Private Investigations before entering religious life I have to say that this move by the Vatican is not only prudent but completely in keeping with standard corporate internet security procedures.

    Social networking tools like Facebook and MySpace et all, while wonderful for keeping in touch with friends and family are also nightmares when it comes to keeping information where it belongs. Imagine if you will, a rumour going about the office about a change in assignment for a bishop in a mission. Though possibly completely false and probably the misinterpretation of an overheard conversation, such information posted on such networks become the unpleasant headlines read by an unsuspecting bishop the next morning as he tries to enjoy a coffee.

    Now imagine if you will, a more serious matter; an employee engaged in some manner of illegal activity from work and as a result of said activity serious consequences ensue. (I speak of other restricted sites not just social networking) It is important for the Vatican to take steps to ensure that it cannot be construed as enabling such activity especially when the IP address that would show up on any subpoenaed records would implicate the Vatican. Do we really want a scandal that can be so easily avoided?

    Employees at work are quite capable of using official channels such as email, telephones and secured instant messaging for instant worldwide communications for conducting the work they are there to do. (all of which are preferable should records of conversations ever need to be reviewed)

    As for leaks, spies, disinformation, thieves, hackers and the unwitting office saboteur; there is a saying we had in security: ‘You can’t stop them all, but you don’t have to gift wrap it for them.’

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