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The Web can Bite Back!

Net 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 they’re 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.

That’s 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 company’s bottom line.

What’s 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 don’t want them to.

“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 Symantec’s “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 award.

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 there’s 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 doesn’t 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 company’s 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, isn’t guaranteed to stop ill-gotten surfing, but it doesn’t 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 they’re surfing, and companies should remember that a little personal surfing isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and it’s 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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January 31, 2006