Lawmakers debate ethical risks of their Facebook use

JUNEAU: Their access via state computers raises some concerns.

Associated PressFebruary 10, 2012 

JUNEAU -- Alaska lawmakers have been allowed to use Facebook from state computers at the Capitol since last February, with a few strings attached.

This week, the committee of senators and representatives that sets rules for the Legislature revisited that one-year approval. A state information technology director said there was no adverse effect on the state's computers but committee members like Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, raised other concerns.

Stoltze is not convinced ethical questions about Facebook political advertisements have been properly answered and worries it could result in ethical charges against lawmakers for violations of campaign laws.

"Maybe that's just my oversensitivity," Stoltze told the Legislative Council on Thursday. "But it's so easy to get into politics unintentionally ... and I think this blurs those lines between how the public perceives us as legislating."

Facebook users don't have control over the ads that appear on profile pages and that could be the basis for an ethics charge.

He also worries that if someone comments on a posting, that could also be considering campaigning.

Council member Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, balked at both claims.

"Facebook ads aren't even tied to anything that's on my page; they're targeted for whoever is looking at my page," Holmes said in an interview with The Associated Press after the hearing. "The issue of somebody else posting on your site is more analogous to somebody sending an unsolicited email. How can that be held against anyone?"

She also said social media is a useful tool for legislators that should be used with the same ethical standards they already follow when using state phones and computers.

"No personal calls, no campaign emails, no Facebook posts asking for votes," Holmes said. "It's pretty simple."

When the program was put in place, those who wanted access to Facebook at work had to complete an application.

A total of 34 legislators and seven staffers went through the application process but that process also came into question during the hearing.

"Why go through the process of applying to the program at all?" said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak. "There haven't been any big problems I know of and I think you'll see a fairly large number of people wanting to use it that don't want to waste time with the paperwork."

Curtis Clothier, information services manager for the state, told the committee the application was quick and simple and good to have in place because it left signed paperwork of lawmakers' promise not to veer away from approved uses.

No decisions were made and the council is expected to take up Facebook issues again at a March meeting.

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