Maryland lawmakers lose Facebook

The Baltimore Sun

To Del. Curtis S. Anderson's extreme consternation, despite repeated attempts, he couldn't log on to Facebook from his Annapolis office Thursday night. He walked out into the hallway in frustration and ran into an equally stymied woman.

When the Baltimore Democrat got to work yesterday morning, he realized it was no fluke: The Maryland General Assembly had blocked all elected officials and staff from Facebook and MySpace - apparently the first legislature in the country to ban the popular online social networks.

"I'm kind of cut off from the outside world here," Anderson said yesterday, just hours into the ban. "It's a dark day."

Officials blamed the ban on a "significant increase in viruses and malware affecting the Maryland General Assembly computers."

The block pertains to all computers running on the legislature's network, including the laptops lawmakers often use to surf the Web during lengthy bill hearings.

"We realize that this may be an inconvenience and we apologize," Office of Legislative Information Systems Director Michael Gaudiello wrote in a note to the affected parties. "But it is essential that the integrity of the Maryland General Assembly computer systems and facilities are protected."

At least 43 members of the 188-member General Assembly are on Facebook, a service used by about 150 million people worldwide. The politicians have "friends" on the network - thousands and thousands of Maryland residents who now will have a harder time reaching them.

Steve Kozak, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, seemed incredulous when he heard about the block.

"They banned Facebook?" he gasped. "Why?"

He suspected that those behind the move might not realize how valuable Facebook can be as a civic tool. Or that across the country, politicians and bureaucrats have been putting their heads together for months, brainstorming on ways to harness the social networking medium to engage people in government.

Barack Obama, who was able to reach out to millions of people on Facebook, grassroots-style, might be the network's greatest political success story.

Pam Greenberg, who handles Internet and technology issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said yesterday that she had heard of no other state body blocking Facebook or MySpace. She pointed out that many legislators are embracing the technology.

Political blogger Judd Legum, who's got a number of elected officials on his Facebook friends list and calls the ban "sort of silly," agreed. "Members of the General Assembly realize if they're 'friends' with their constituents, it keeps them in touch. It's a very powerful tool for political organizing," he said.

Baltimore Del. Jill P. Carter, a Democrat, logs on to Facebook to correspond with her 1,083 friends. They chat about slots, the state smoking ban and other issues. Carter's friends can see that she's a fan of the rapper Mos Def and the TV show Boston Legal, and that she "love[s] being alone to think, breathe, regenerate my energy, and explain nothing."

Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, shoots out frequent status updates such as: "Warren is recovering from O'Malley's Speech which was very heavy on [partisan rhetoric] and lacking in any way in relief for Maryland's [beleaguered] taxpayers!"

Miller, who does information technology work for the federal government, accepts the inconvenience. He says he'd rather lose the ability to get on Facebook than have a virus destroy his laptop. Anyway, he says, he has a BlackBerry and can get onto the site that way, in a limited fashion.

Sen. Richard S. Madeleno, a Montgomery County Democrat, sent a Facebook invitation encouraging 17-year-olds to take advantage of the new law that allowed them to vote in the last primary. He found out the note he sent to a few people had been forwarded through the site to 17,000 people.

"More and more constituents are friending me," Madeleno said. "This decision to block us does block us from that avenue of contacting them, unless we do it at home."

By yesterday, Alexandra M. Hughes, a spokeswoman for the House of Delegates, said only "a handful of members have inquired about the policy." But she added, "there's been an uproar from the press."

City legislator Anderson, for one, promises to make his discontent heard.

Asked why the General Assembly's computer system can't handle popular Web sites that are available on the servers of other state agencies and public universities, Hughes said, "I can't speak for any other Maryland agency. Maryland legislative servers were encountering problems with malware, and our most important priority is to protect the integrity of the legislature's servers."

Gaudiello told The Baltimore Sun that there has been no damage or loss of data associated with the dozens of viruses coming from links hosted on the social-networking Web sites, but that the action was taken as a precaution.

Gaudiello said the Department of Legislative Services is monitoring additional sites for virus activity and might be blocking those, too.

Anderson turns to Facebook to stay in touch with his family, friends and - increasingly - his constituents. He's got 800 friends and figures that most of them are constituents. He's posted a video montage he made to show his supporters what a day during the legislative session is like. During down time in committee meetings, he catches up on correspondence and RSVPs for events he's been invited to through the site.

Without a nongovernment computer or a BlackBerry-type device to get around the ban, he's now unable to do any of this during long days in Annapolis.

"I don't know if they've also banned every porn site," he said dryly. "Because there's probably more chance of a virus there. Not that I've tried it. I'm just sayin'."

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