Employee Surfing Strategies

12 April 2001
In the last five years, Internet access at the office went from rare to ubiquitous. With it came new problems for corporate managers to manage--such as employees using the corporate network to visit adult websites, download pirated software and waste corporate bandwidth and time to recreationally surf.

Here are some interesting and sobering statistics from those who study these things. Thirty percent to 40 percent of Internet use in the workplace isn't related to business. Seventy percent of all Web traffic occurs during work hours. Seventy percent of employees admit to viewing or sending adult-oriented e-mail at work.

Popular Sites

Twenty-five of the most visited sites during work hours include Amazon.com, eBay, RealNetworks, and Travelocity. I suppose that people are mostly bidding on new desks for the office, watching educational streaming media and buying plane tickets for their next business trip. I believe that. Don't you?

Experts say employees surfing the Web from their office PCs cost corporate America more than $1 billion a year. The costs are mostly attributable to lower productivity levels and bandwidth expenses.

Then, let's not forget e-mail. It may not be the bandwidth hog that the Web can be, but it's time consuming. The fact is that many employees use their corporate e-mail to do things like write to Aunt Tilly and Uncle Bob. Again, it's all about lost productivity.

There are even sites that are designed to entertain your workforce while you're paying them. One good example is www.IShouldBeWorking.com. When you arrive, the site greets you with "Welcome Slackers!" Moreover, to help those employees you love to hate, it has an "Uh-Oh, It's Your Boss" panic button.

The instructions on the panic button tell your slacker that "If you should be working but you're not, you may need to give the impression that you are indeed busy. The panic button, located in the upper left corner of every ISBW page, bridges the gap between work and leisure. Simply hit the button whenever the need arises and you will immediately be redirected to a helpful, business oriented website."

Productivity Issues

While I must say that you need to get a life if you can't see the humor in this, there is still a legitimate productivity issue too. Oh, and yes, there's potential legal liability for your company.

Don't you just love our laws? You hire some guy. You give him Net access. He abuses it. You get sued. You pay money. Isn't it great to be an American?

Now you're probably wondering how we could get to this. One scenario could be the "boys" deciding that Joe's office is the place to hang during lunch while Joe gives everybody a tour of his favorite adult websites. When the women decide that this has created a sexually hostile work environment--well, you get the picture.

It turns out that recreational surfing not only creates productivity issues, but also can create a host of legal problems. You could find that your recreationally surfing employees are putting you at risk of sexual harassment claims, copyright infringement, and being accused of invasions of privacy.

Many companies have turned to software solutions to control and monitor what it is that their employees do on the Internet.

Let's start with the preliminary question. May your private company control and monitor what it is that your employees do on the Internet? The answer is a resounding "yes." Courts have viewed your office computers as just that: "yours." You can control them. You can monitor them.

Company Policy

One preliminary step you should take is to have all your employees sign a Computer Use Policy acknowledging and agreeing to the filtering and monitoring.

Filtering software prevents employees from viewing certain types of sites. One problem with filters is that they're not as effective as they claim to be. Some experts estimate that filtering software fails to block one out of every five sites deemed objectionable.

Of course, the statistic itself begs the question, "What's an objectionable site?" Answer--it's in the eye of the beholder.

Maybe we just have to accept that United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was onto something when he declined to define the kinds of material he understood to be embraced within the term "hard-core pornography." He summed it all up by saying, "I know it when I see it."

This just may have to also be the standard for "objectionable" material in the office. The problem with the filtering software is that the one judging what your employees can't see is a software company and their judgments may not match yours or your lawyers.

Another approach is to monitor and record what your employees do on their computers. You might log the websites they visit or even record their every keystroke. It's up to you to determine the tone you want to set in your company and the measures that you think fit the corporate culture you want to create.

While we can debate how far you can and should go in filtering and monitoring employee Internet access, it's clear that unlimited access to the Net isn't a good option for your business. At the very least, you should create a written policy about responsible Internet use. If you don't, you're playing with fire.

Mark Grossman's "TechLaw" column appears in numerous publications. Mark Grossman has extensive experience as a speaker as well. If you would like him to speak before your group or corporate meeting, please call (305) 443-8180 for information.

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