Thou Shall Not Blog

Filed as Editorial, Features on February 26, 2008 11:55 pm

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Bloggers Rights graphic by Lorelle VanFossenOver the years, as blogging has grown from fad to trend, I’ve traveled the world talking to other bloggers, many sharing stories of how they were confronted with new job contracts, agreements, and policies that state: Thou shall not blog.

My first response is always, “Why not?” Oh, I get an earful. It ranges from business practices to government limitations, and everything in between.

Here are some of the reasons why many people can’t blog.

Violation of Non-Disclosure

Let’s face it. We’re human. We make mistakes. We go forth with the best intentions and screw up. Often without thought. Knowing this, many businesses won’t risk the slip you may make as you free-wheel your thoughts publicly and disclose some of their proprietary information. Fear of disclosure is a huge issue for companies, a big incentive to bring out the papers for signature, banning blogging.

And there can be big money in such disclosures, too, an incentive for those to blog trade secrets.

While many agree that companies need to protect their secrets, and many disagree, blogs can be shut down for revealing trade secrets and violating non-disclosure contracts.

Your job is at risk, too. A Target store employee was fired in 2006 for blogging anti-theft secrets used by the company, just one of many fired every year for breaking a company’s code of silence and intellectual property rights.

While Open Source is growing and becoming an economically viable business model, protection of intellectual property and proprietary trade secrets continue to be fought in the courts, and often bloggers lose.

Conflict of Interest

There are a lot of conflicts of interest that can arise when an employee goes public. Your opinion might conflict with company policy. Your public thoughts might conflict with management’s style. By providing similar work-related advice or opinions, you might be offering services which conflict and/or compete with the company’s sales and income. You could set yourself up, intentionally or not, as a competitor.

Many bloggers have been fired over the past few years for blogging, with the company claiming a conflict of interest, especially when it comes to personal blogs. A political blogger was fired recently and blames retaliation by a US Congressman because the blogger allegedly made a $100 donation to the congressman’s competitor, a clear conflict of interest, at least from the congressman’s perspective.

Many bloggers face a conflict of interest when their blog becomes business and leads to them writing for a living, having to choose which stories go to the paid gig and which ones get published on their own blogs without encouraging the wrath of the blog employer.

The same applies to those who work or report for news, magazine, and publishing agencies. If writing is part of your work, as is giving opinion, advice, recommendations, and blog-related or similar effort, by blogging you give away for free (or little money) that which you should be giving 100% to the company, potentially causing them to lose money or create a conflict of interest.

The BBC Editorial Guidelines state in their Guidelines For Bloggers that if an employee has a blog, they must report it to their superior, include a disclaimer if it looks like the blogger represents the BBC in some manner, and states:

If someone offers to pay you for blogging this could constitute a conflict of interest and you must consult your manager.

What’s not clear is what constitutes offers of payment. Does that include advertising or pay-per-post?

The idea is that you don’t get paid for writing, that your blog remains a hobby, but it also brings up another conflict of interest – your blog might make you worth hiring away by the competition.

Many times when a blogger is fired, the firing makes their career with the notoriety. Even without the news of the firing, there is no doubt that a blog can make or break your reputation in today’s online world.

Your blog is your resume. It speaks for you, your character, your interests, your expertise, abilities, skills, integrity, consistency, job performance, and reputation. It’s an open invitation to the world that this is someone with an opinion of value, someone with advice to offer, expertise, maybe even someone worth hiring, if the blog and the job description match. Some companies don’t like the risk of trade secrets or proprietary information being hired away from them either.

Reputation

When you speak, do you speak for the company? Many employers believe that their employees represent them, on and off the clock. This is not much different from being fired for disorderly or illegal conduct, making the company look bad because of your actions outside of work.

The restriction against blogging might also restrict the employee from commenting on blogs. If you shoot your mouth off at someone for something, that something might come back around to bite the business on the butt because you are an employee, tarnishing their reputation – and yours.

Sound far fetched? The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation blog, Inside The CBC broadcast a story on their parent company’s policy that employees must seek permission from “their superiors to create AND maintain blogs in which they are identifiable as CBC employees.” They claim that the “ban on personal blogs” included all employees, even janitors, from blogging for any cause as well as “prohibiting public support for groups, causes, or expressing partisan opinions” – making this a bigger issue than just about blogging. The intent seems to be that CBC employees are speaking for the company when they blog or publicly voice their personal political and social issues.

They are not alone when it comes to corporate judgment of “appropriate” when it comes to blogs. A US government lab employee was fired for blogging about his support of gun ownership. A Delta Airlines flight attendant was fired for “inappropriate images” on her “anonymous semi-fictional account of her life in the sky.” Another personal blogger was fired for blogging about employees and management, with a few unkind descriptive references. A political campaign blogger was fired for insulting comments about the candidate and his wife. A few days ago, a CNN producer was fired for his personal blog and guest blog posts as violating the company policy on no blogging and blogging “inappropriate” content and views.

Security and Safety

For some companies, the issue of “security” comes under non-disclosure, though, for companies that work with governments, and government employees, “security” has a much bigger connotation, one that brings with it many blog bans and controls.

While some US military officials recommend blogs, especially if used for counterintelligence or good will back home, the US government doesn’t want its military blogging openly without controls and authorization in place, including blocking blogs that speak out publicly about issues over which the government wants to continue to maintain order and control. Military networks officially banned YouTube access and are considering banning Facebook and other social networking service access, and many are told blogging is a “major security risk” to the troupes and military campaign. According to the official documents, “Failure to do so…could result in a court-martial, or administrative, disciplinary, contractual, or criminal action.”

That covers blogs that risk national security, but what about blogs and safety? Especially the safety of children?

In 2005, a Catholic school in New Jersey banned blogging out of fear of online sexual predators and child abusers. A report on USAToday in 2006 tells of many school boards banning blogs and social networking to protect their students. Examples included actions taken against students for derogatory blog comments made about other students and teachers, such as a Texas girl kicked off her cheerleading team when a friend posted a “derogatory statement about other cheerleaders on her blog.” According to the school officials, this was a “violation of the code of conduct for cheerleaders, which states they must ‘exhibit high moral standards.’”

In fury of fear and desire to protect children online, in July 2006, the US House of Representatives passed US House Resolution 5319 which would have blocked access to MySpace and other blog, chat, and social networking sites via access from schools and libraries or those institutions will “lose their federal internet subsidies.” Currently, the Bill status states it has been referred to the Senate and is in the hands of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which, after two years, probably means it is stalled. Many believe that to be a good thing as the Bill was too broad and undefined as it stood.

Recent studies (pdf) show that in spite of the bans, kids continue to play and socialize on the web and that fears of child safety are blown out of proportion. While schools around the world continue to ban blogging and access to blogs to protect their children, more and more professionals are promoting a “don’t panic” recommendation for continuing education on Internet safety, common sense, and positive incorporation of blogs and social networking services into the classroom for promoting responsible online behavior and practices.

Intellectual Property/Exclusive Rights

In articles on The Chronicle of Higher Learning – Wired Campus about blogging not allowed during college sports events and Courier Journal about a sports blogger ejected during a game for blogging, it seems that there is a growing trend towards silencing sports bloggers to protect the intellectual property rights of the game. In both of these incidents, the reason given was that live blogging would violate the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) policy that “blogging is a live representation of the game” and such usage violates their exclusive rights to the income generated by airing the game. While other sports associations and teams allow blogging and online reporting, some sports groups want to sell exclusive rights to their live broadcasts, and they ban blogging as competition.

This came up with the blogging restrictions during the Pan Am Games in Rio in 2007 and a blogger denied credentials and access for blogging an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who was told that blogging was not permitted without a $20,000 license to secure local broadcast and Internet rights.

Today, the debate over blog coverage of sports events is heating up, even though Olympic athletes were finally given authorization to blog their Olympic experience. Historically, the International Olympic Committee banned athletes from blogging, even going as far as trying to change the laws regarding copyrights and Fair Use, determined to protect their intellectual property, warning the 2006 Winter Olympics teams in Turin that they faced disqualification if they blogged during the Games. While athletes can blog in the upcoming Olympics, they are restricted from blogging “interesting” events and information and suffer restricted use and publishing of video, audio, or photos unless they are outside the “accredited” or restricted areas.

Yet, those who watch the Olympics in person or via television or media outlets are free to blog all they want about the games and events. Many don’t see the difference, looking at these restrictions as more in keeping with denial of freedom of speech and creative expression, not the goodwill and unity the Olympics should be about. Others see blogging taking away the exclusivity and income from the sports. Can both be right?

First Come, First Paid, First Served

In the past few years, events like Nielsen BuzzMetrics CGM Summit 2006 and Google Zeitgeist 2005 were “no blog zones” where attendees were told in advance that they would not be allowed to blog the event live. Some were even sent non-disclosure letters and emails.

This justification covers two bases. One, it allows the attendees and speakers to speak “off the record” with supposedly more freedom than they would if they knew every word they said could be public on a blog 30 seconds later.

Two, it makes the conference more attractive as you get the inside scoop first before anyone else, thus, it could be worth the price tag. By restricting live blogging during the conference, many promoters think it lends an exclusive nature to the event.

If those not attending get the information free through live blogging, why bother attending? Many conferences in the past few years have been hurt by tough competition as well as the “why pay when I can follow it live on the web” syndrome.

Politics, Religion, and Government

Beyond business telling employees they can’t blog, governments and religions, especially religious governments, are also telling their citizens they can’t blog – and they can’t read blogs either, which probably covers prohibiting comments on blogs, too. Many controlling governments are running full-tilt into the age of the Internet with fear they will lose control and give their citizens access to the larger world – a world with very different opinions.

graphic representation of YouTube banned access copyright Lorelle VanFossenWordPress.com blogs continue to be blocked in China, Turkey, Pakistan, and other countries. In 2005, there were bans in Iran of many free blog services like Persian Blog, Blogspot/Blogger, and others by major Internet Service Providers providing access to that country. Social networking and chat services were later added to the banned list. Within the past few days, Pakistan banned access to YouTube over comic film clips declared “anti-Islamic” by the government, which may be followed by other Islamic countries. These bans often come because one blogger offends a government or religion and the whole blog networking service is blocked, rather than just the single offender.

In a country once renowned for its freedom of speech policies, an American citizen and software contractor was fired for blogging her opinion on torture on a US top-secret access-only site, reminding many that stepping over the “government party line” can get you fired, your blog shut down, and you threatened with criminal prosecution. Outside the US, bloggers risk their lives and freedom daily to blog when their governments say no blogging or restrict the content of a blog. A Saudi blogger was arrested earlier this year for “violating non-security regulations” on his blog, says the government.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Reporters Without Borders offer up-to-date news and information on many bloggers confronted with freedom of speech issues and fighting to blog against government and religious sanctions.

Is Blogging Worth Risking Your Job and Career?

Are any of these reasons right or wrong? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends upon whose side you take: the one that runs the greater risk from blogging or the one that shouts “freedom of speech” above all else.

Watching blogging move from personal journals into corporate social networking and marketing tools, I enjoy exploring the pros and cons of why people can’t blog. Businesses once restricting blogs are slowly, seeing the value in blogs – as long as everyone blogs nice and sticks to the guidelines.

The issue of blogging and work can be confusing for both the employer and the employee. Many new parents are using blogs as a way of making announcements to family and friends about the upcoming birth, the birth, and the joy of the new baby, as well as a way of journaling their baby’s new life. This has nothing to do with their work, but if the employee handbook says no blogging, such efforts may have to be done anonymously, privately, or kept off blogs and back in the traditional scrapbooks and journals with frequent mailed family newsy letters with photos.

Other people are experts in their hobby, which also might have nothing to do with their “real job” and they want to share their hobby with like-minded folks. Sign says no blogging, can’t blog that, either.

Others just want a social life outside of the work, so why can’t they develop one with a blog? Companies say it’s just not worth the risk.

Signing a non-disclosure agreement is common, even if it includes blogging – as long as the definition of blog content is clearly defined. A blanket “no blogging” is too wide open and restrictive of the employee’s rights and freedoms. No blogging about work or fellow co-workers or trade secrets makes sense, as it protects the rights of others. Without a clear guidelines, how do you know you’ve overstepped a boundary. If you are asked to sign a policy that restricts blogging, I’d recommend sending the contract back unsigned until the definition and limitations on blogging are clarified.

Do you know if your company has a blogging policy? The blogging CNN producer had been blogging for a couple years before finding out a “no blogging” policy had been developed – and still got fired. If your company has changed the rules and you don’t know it, ignorance is no excuse.

I’m not talking about whistle blowing, anonymous bloggers being impacted by no blogging bans. They blog knowing the risk. But you, the typical, everyday blogger, at any time your joy of blogging could be at risk if you step over any of these lines. Know your rights and your restrictions, and blog wisely.

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  1. By Thomas Sinfield posted on February 27, 2008 at 7:30 am
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    I am currently studying but I blogged while at my previous blog. I didnt post about work and my boss didnt know I had a blog so I never had to worry about any of this.

    Reply

  2. By Mike Goad posted on February 27, 2008 at 7:59 am
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    Being retired, I don’t generally have to worry about this. However, I am currently working as a contractor in the same position I worked at before I retired and my contract manager is my former boss. He knows that I have a blog and that he has been mentioned in it less than favorably.

    Even being retired, there are some things I can’t — and won’t — write about because of proprietary restrictions and, in some instances, federal law. It would be the wrong thing to do.

    Reply

  3. By Lorelle VanFossen posted on February 27, 2008 at 10:19 am
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    @Thomas Sinfield:

    I heard that a lot from bloggers, followed by “I should have worried more.” Many think they don’t have to worry, but a company can change their policy at any time. As the CNN Producer found out, CNN has hired staff now whose sole job is to monitor the web for what their employees are doing and saying, as well as investigating future employees.

    Many companies are opening the door to blogs, but others are tightening their control over whether or not their employees can blog.

    Mike Goad: I talked to a “retired” friend recently who had started a blog after leaving their 30 year job. A month ago, he was approached by a company to be a consultant, based on his 30 year reputation. A few days ago, he called me upset that they were reconsidering hiring him because they found out about his blog. Since his blog is about his work expertise, though he covers personal stuff, too, I told him to tell them that the blog is his PR and marketing tool, his online resume, and that he should recommend that they start a blog for their own business communications and networking tool. He managed to turn it around and they looked at him with even more respect, but this story could have gone in another direction easily. Luckily, he had enough professional content to justify his story.

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  4. By David LaFerney posted on February 27, 2008 at 2:07 pm
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    In a country once renowned for its freedom of speech policies…

    Well at least they can’t just lock you up in a secret prison and torture you without due process or access to counsel.

    Oh wait…

    Never mind.

    BTW, register, vote.

    Reply

  5. By Francesca posted on November 29, 2008 at 9:48 am
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    I’m self employed, so I don’t have to worry too much about a boss forbidding me to blog. However, there are things I don’t blog about and language I don’t use in my blog because I’m aware of proprietary restrictions as well as reputation, safety and security

    However, I thing employers should set guidelines for their employees to follow, if they wish start or already have a blog, rather than blindly demanding them to stop blogging or never blog, even about topics totally unrelated to the company’s field of operations and unlikely to bring them anywhere near to disclosing proprietary information or tarnishing the company’s reputation. If a ban to blogging should spread in the corporate world, who would be left blogging?

    Reply

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