Software maker warns of billions lost due to Net use

The Internet, this grand master of information once ushered into businesses as an invaluable workplace tool, is now being judged as something slightly more sinister: a costly employee time-waster.

At least this is the premise on which one firm is selling its new employee Internet management (EIM) software, claiming that U.S. companies lose billions of dollars a year due to employees’ recreational Internet use.

San Diego, Calif.-based Websense Inc. said Wednesday that U.S. companies lose US$63 billion a year in lost productivity due to the Net, which the company claims is a “major distraction” for employees.

Websense, which is a software maker, not a research company, said it based its estimate on the U.S. Census Bureau’s average U.S. salary and an hour of work lost per week due to employees’ personal Internet use.

Although the company’s complete methodology was not defined, a January 2000 report from technology researcher Gartner Inc. stated that although access to the Net empowers users to gather and process information very quickly, “Internet use in many organizations is a large contributor to lost user productivity.”

Gartner doesn’t estimate the amount of money businesses lose in productivity due to the Net, but the researcher did state the need to limit how employees use the medium.

Gartner’s report, entitled “Components of a PC Policy,” concluded that corporate computer policies should warn employees that the Internet should not be used for any non-work related purposes. The Gartner analysts conceded, however, that a total elimination of leisure browsing is not realistic, and suggested that employees be permitted some “casual” Internet use, something akin to personal phone calls from work.

But while policies are all fine and good, actual Net practice may paint a different story.

A Nielsen//NetRatings study released a few weeks ago revealed that at-work Net use grew 23 percent from June of last year to June 2001. Although the study did not break the numbers down according to personal and work-related use, it’s clear that workers are spending more time than ever online.

Given this, companies like Websense are selling products that definitively control the amount of time employees can use for recreational Web use.

Websense recently released its Enterprise v4.3 software, which allows IT administrators to set quotas as to how much time employees are allowed to spend surfing the Net for personal purposes each day. After the allotted time, say 30 minutes given to employees a day to surf entertainment and shopping sites, access to the Net gets limited to work-related sites.

The company, which boasts an array of EIM software, claims to have half of the Fortune 500 as clients, and partnerships with companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc.

If businesses truly are demanding more Net control for their employees, as Websense suggests, workers should take heed at where they choose to do their surfing.

One day soon, access may be denied.

Websense, in San Diego, Calif., is at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., is at