Over the past few months social networking sites have increased massively in popularity and yet it seems at the same time there is a growing corporate backlash against them. Pete Simpson, threat lab manager at Clearswift, discusses how businesses can turn the social networking boom into an opportunity.

More and more companies have been banning the use of sites such as Facebook and MySpace, causing employees to complain about lack of trust and preventing the businesses themselves from using social networking sites for competitive advantage. I think resellers have some real opportunities here to educate customers, ease concerns and generate revenues from the Facebook phenomenon.

So what are the concerns for businesses? The first is that social networking sites affect productivity and with stories about Facebook usage costing employers £30.8 billion per year, it is no surprise they are worried. One suggestion to curb staff usage is to put policies in place to only allow users access to specific social networking sites at certain times, for instance, before 9am, after 5.30pm and in lunchtimes. Products which can do this are readily available and by implementing them employees do not feel their freedom is being infringed and can still keep in touch with friends, but employers can be sure that during working hours, staff are doing just that.

The second concern businesses have raised is employees may leak confidential company information on social networking sites either accidentally or intentionally. Obviously this is a very real issue and any organisation needs robust content security to prevent this from happening. However, it is not true that the only way to protect confidential data leakage on social networking sites is to block the use of them.

Content security solutions offer the opportunity to set up and enforce specific filtering policies. With the right solution, employers can check all web content for confidential content and keywords - whether it is on a social networking site, on a blog or in a webmail message. Any content which is confidential or deemed inappropriate will be blocked, allowing companies to keep a tight grip on what gets into the public domain. This way, employees can discuss their day, weekend or pets with friends but are prevented from talking about company financials, recruitment or contracts.

So what should resellers do when faced with employers who see no business value in social networking? These are the sort of people who would say Facebook is not necessary to the work of, for example, an accountant, so no provision should be made for it in the workplace - a blanket ban would be fine.

The answer is social networking has become a valid way of conversing not just with friends, but also with colleagues, customers and business prospects. Sites such as LinkedIn or Viadeo are social networking tools specifically designed for the business community, and there are a growing number of people who use Facebook for work-related networking.

An example of this is T-Mobile, which created a group on Facebook designed to allow its new graduate recruits to get to know each other before starting at the company. Using the group, employees could swap mobile numbers, organise house shares and arrange to meet. It also allowed T-Mobile to respond to any queries the new employees may have had about their jobs. The response from the graduates was very positive and the company intends to continue with this initiative and expand it for the graduate scheme next year.

Those organisations which are not web 2.0-savvy and ban such sites do so at their peril - it certainly reduces the opportunity to use the technology for business benefit, but also makes the organisation look out of touch and old fashioned, which is not the right image for today's employers trying to attract a tech-savvy graduate workforce. Blanket bans are simply not an answer - they create ill-feeling and make employees feel untrusted. One high profile law firm, recently made a U-turn on banning Facebook when its employees complained. The company claimed it had decided to reinstate access because the site had a potential for business networking.

Some organisations have already started using security technology to provide employees with balanced access to web 2.0 sites. British Energy is one of these - providing special zones housing computers which allow access to social networking sites and other leisure sites, which employees can use in their breaks. However, desk computers have policies only giving access to work-related sites. This means when staff are at their desks the employer can be assured any access to the internet is work-related. It is worth noting that although British Energy has zones for personal internet usage, security software is still in place across the organisation to ensure confidential company data is protected.

It is worth noting that social networking does give malware writers a new outlet for attack. Interactive sites use open source Ajax coding, which gives many more points of entry than with traditional HTML coding and with these new technologies come new threats. However, by using policy-driven security an IT manager can bar access to a certain site or sites as soon as a threat is discovered and for as long as that threat is active. With flexible policy management, employees can still access work-critical internet sites so that their job-related tasks remain unaffected. 

In this web 2.0 age when employers are blogging and company websites are becoming more interactive, it makes good business sense for employees to be allowed access to such sites. The channel can provide security solutions, which allow employees to use social networking sites, while still guarding against data leakage, malware and time wasting worries which preoccupy their employers - keeping everyone happy. Resellers are in a position to reassure companies that allowing social networking will not damage their business. In fact, it is likely it will improve morale and make them appear far more technologically-savvy - both of which can only be huge positives.