In what could be a sign of the times, and potentially another blow to Facebook’s image, that Thailand’s Interior Ministry has banned its use in the workplace. Come October 1, all of its officers will be barred from using Facebook in what is part of a crackdown on social networks and private downloads.

A decree from the ministry’s headquarters in Bangkok ordered the Governors of all 76 provinces to make staff aware of the ban. Hundreds of thousands of workers come under various departments that are overseen by the Interior Ministry.

Access to Facebook and other popular sites deemed to “have no workplace significance” will be prohibited between 8.30 am and noon and 1 pm to 4.30 pm. ”The Information Communication Technology Center has been looking at the issue of workplace practices for eight months,” said the written edict in the Thai language, signed by Deputy Interior Minister, Pracha Terat.

Interior Ministry staff are also banned from downloading files, movies and music for personal use. The Center appears to have found that personal use of government computers for non-work activities has ‘stressed bandwidth’ but makes no mention of loss of productivity that seems to be the major issue in Western workplaces.

Thailand’s Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has a Facebook page with over 630,000 people saying that they ‘like’ her page.  Even the Ministry of the Interior has a Facebook page, but with only 102 ‘likes’ and that number is not ‘likely’ to rise after the announcement (no pun intended). Ministers in Thailand’s government and opposition also are users of Facebook and other social network. Thailand, like most of the emerging economies in Asia, has taken to social networking with gusto.

However, with Facebook being used more and more for commercial purposes and often as the primary means of communicating between family and friends, any blanket ban may be seen in some countries as restricting personal civil liberties. Could it mean that a ban on personal email, SMS and phone communications will follow?

This escalating use of online systems and information flows highlights the blur between professional and private lives. It also highlights the information these online sites hold, and to what extent an employer has the right to monitor this free flow of information, let alone restrict or deny it.

Of those surveyed in a recent Australian study, The Electronic Workplace, 31 per cent reported using social networking sites during work hours. Facebook was the most used site at work (94 per cent), with only 14 per cent acknowledging using social media solely for work-related activities, compared with 42 per cent using it just for personal (non-work related) activities, a 3 to 1 ratio.

From an IT security perspective, there are some valid reasons to block Facebook at work. Compromised Facebook (and Twitter) accounts are becoming more and more popular as avenues for malware distribution. Today’s users know to not open email attachments from strangers, but a link sent from a friend via Facebook or direct message in your Twitter account are not likely to be challenged?

On the one hand, there’s potentially the loss of productivity and the possible leakage of trade secrets, along with the possibility of infection from malware and viruses. On the other hand, employees should be smart enough to know that they aren’t being paid to be on Facebook or any other social media site during working hours. At least that’s what we’d like to think, but the frequent headlines of employees being fired for viewing inappropriate content on their work computers never ceases to amaze.

So, what’s the difference between taking a break, having a smoke, making a coffee or spending ten minutes on Facebook? That’s a tough one to reconcile and an issue that will be harder and harder for manager’s to enforce or monitor in this social networking era. The boundaries between personal and business social networking are blurring as well. What a dilemma! If Facebook is banned at work what other sites will have to be included and what could disgruntled staff do to retaliate? Good luck making that call.

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 10 September, 2012