Surfers, Time Killers, and Big Brother
By Jim Bray
If you spend a lot of time surfing the Internet at work, you may have
a rude surprise waiting for you down the road.
The Internet is a marvelous research tool, and it makes sense for companies
to offer Internet access to their employees across the network. An increasing
number of employers, however, appear to be getting the impression theyre
being ripped off as these same employees kill otherwise productive time
surfing for personal pleasure.
According to a report I read recently, one in five companies has had
to discipline employees for indulging in the aimless thrills of cyberspace,
and up to a quarter of all Internet traffic originating from corporate
spaces is totally unrelated to the job at hand.
Thats a lot of online off time, and one can understand why bosses
might get a tad upset at seeing their profitability being sucked into
the black hole of cyberspace.
Not only that but, the Internet being what it is, some of these workers
could even be stalking or harassing people online, which could potentially
leave the company (the source of the Internet access) legally liable.
The Net may clear the crowd from the water cooler, but it may not do
much for the companys bottom line.
Whats a self respecting corporation to do?
There are actually several things that can be done, some of which about
as simple as those Net Nanny-type programs parents can use
to prevent their kids from surfing places where they dont want them
Superscout, Websense, and Smartfilter
are all products that can control and/or monitor employees Web access
according to things like the time of day or the type of site. For instance
you can let your people surf freely at lunchtime or after hours, and keep
them away from the porn sites.
Programs like Symantecs Mail-Gear, can monitor e-mail
coming and going from your place to help a company control the flow of
electronic messages and, having seen the typical number of spam
e-mails that come and go from an office near me (and that come into my
home office), I think this could be a product worth some kind of humanitarian
I mean, can you imagine arriving at work and not being assaulted by the
usual hundreds of Get Rich Quick and Business Opportunity
spams? What a wonderful, wonderful world!
But I digress.
While I can sympathize with a company that wants to crack down on employee
misuse of the Internet theres another side to the story. In fact,
keeping a watchful eye on personal cybersurfing during office hours could
run the risk of alienating workers and could, theoretically, even lead
to invasion of privacy action being taken against it by these
supposedly wronged employees.
It doesnt even have to be through a deliberate campaign to stamp
out unauthorized surfing. A private e-mail that happens to be seen by
the company blabbermouth could wreak hallway havoc and could be damaging
to the person whose mail was passed around.
So companies contemplating a cloak and dagger Internet policy should
give it some hard thought before going ahead. Not only is monitoring software,
none of which is absolutely foolproof, going to cost the company money,
it could lead to a gaggle of disgusted employees who might just return
the companys lack of trust in a variety of creative ways.
One way a company could help cure the problem is as simple as publishing
an employee Internet usage policy. This could amount to adding something
to the procedures manual, posting a memo in the coffee room, or bringing
up the topic at a staff meeting. This, naturally, isnt guaranteed
to stop ill-gotten surfing, but it doesnt cost a dime and it gives
your workers the added benefit of the doubt.
This is probably the best way to begin combating Internet theft
and, though it could easily backfire, its elegant simplicity has a certain
beauty to it. If the problem continues, you can then think about beefing
up your online arsenal.
The bottom line for companies and employees alike is to act responsibly.
Workers should remember whose dime it is on which theyre surfing,
and companies should remember that a little personal surfing isnt
necessarily a bad thing and its a probably cheaper in the
long run than giving an extra employee benefit.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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