Social networking sites for some companies are way too valuable as sales tools to block usage. But they raise important legal issues.

Popular social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, are causing a stir in the financial services community as well as other highly regulated industries as companies seek ways to control how the sites are used to communicate with potential clients and colleagues.

Social networking sites have proved valuable for sales-lead generation, marketing and general broker-client relations, but regulators have been quick to take notice and to offer the same warnings they did more than a decade ago when e-mail and instant messaging (IM) became common.

However, controlling communications on social networking Web sites is far more complex for corporations because they’re attempting to control communications on Web sites that are outside their IT systems and that are almost continuously changing or adding to the number of applications that can be used to network.

“It is a big issue. In fact, I think it’s a bigger issue [than e-mail and IM],” said Ted Ritter, an analyst with Nemertes Research. “For IM and e-mail, you pretty much use standard port and protocols. You just have to be in the right spot in the network to capture it and monitor it.”

Social networks are more akin to webmail, where there are many different ways to access the sites, which makes it more complicated from a technology standpoint, Ritter said.

“For instance, what do you do about people who have mobile updates to Facebook?” he said. “From an audit standpoint, as auditors become more aware of the issues, they are going to look for controls.”

Ritter said businesses will not only have to monitor social networking communications, but they will have to capture the traffic, audit it and log it.

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