Tools keep an eye on Web use

On a scale with anarchy at one end and a police state at the other, most companies’ human resources departments generally aim for something in between. However, spurred on by – among other reasons – multimillion-dollar lawsuits in the U.S., many organizations are moving closer to the police state end of the scale when it comes to employee Internet usage.

Brian Burke, a senior research analyst focusing on Internet security at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said Internet monitoring tools were first introduced into the workplace because management perceived that employees were spending too much time surfing the Web for non-work reasons.

“This quickly evolved into a legal liability and we’ve seen several lawsuits popping up over the last couple of years with employees sexually offended by what they saw on a co-worker’s computer screen. It’s not just a manager’s issue now, but a CEO-level type that’s implementing the technology to avoid legal issues,” he said.

Curt Staker, executive vice-president of worldwide sales at San Diego-based Websense, a company specializing in monitoring and blocking software, said that organizations are becoming more willing to set boundaries around Internet usage.

Steve Nield, a network engineer for Ogden, Utah-based Ton Services, installed Websense to block inappropriate material because his organization’s parent company runs Web stations in public places and they wanted to protect themselves from possible lawsuits, Nield explained.

“It’s a company’s responsibility to provide a harmonious environment for people to work, and there’s absolutely no difference between someone walking into an office and seeing a Hustler centrefold on a computer screen or sitting on a desk in a magazine,” Staker said.

According to Staker, when companies choose to implement software to block inappropriate Web sites, they generally ban what he refers to as the sinful six: pornography, gambling, illegal activities, hate sites, tasteless material and violent content.

While some employees react unfavourably to having their Internet browsing curbed, most don’t complain, Staker said.

“Nobody’s going to run into their manager’s office and complain because they can’t get on to their Nazi subscription site,” he said.

According to Bill Gassman, a senior analyst at Gartner Inc. in Bedford, N.H., the knowledge of the tool being in place can be as effective as the tool itself.

“In general, once it’s put in place it’s like a cop car on the road – everybody’s going to slow down. Nobody’s going to try to get by hoping that it doesn’t catch them because they know that reports will say who has been blocked,” Gassman said.

Inappropriate material popping up on employees’ screens isn’t the only reason that monitoring tools are becoming more popular. One reason is that companies often don’t have enough bandwidth to accommodate serious surfing by every employee.

“Downloading MP3s and video clips and things of that nature eat up a lot of bandwidth, but also bring up another legal liability issue. The music industry is making a big deal about people downloading copyrighted songs and clips, and companies could be liable if they have these files on their network,” Burke said.

Legal issues aside, Gassman is unconvinced that installing a blocking tool is the right solution if a company’s only concern is the use of bandwidth.

“It’s an expensive fix, considering that bandwidth is pretty cheap,” he said.

A third reason for installing the software is that managers feel that it will improve employee productivity.

Staker referred to the Internet as the hidden killer of productivity.

“If somebody was standing at the coffee machine for eight hours a week, people would notice that, but it’s far easier for someone sitting at their PC all day to look busy while they’re actually playing slot machines,” he said.

According to Gassman, it’s not possible to create a direct ratio between non-business use and an hourly wage, as most people can multitask at least to some extent.

“The truth is that time spent surfing isn’t always completely wasted – the employee is at least sitting by the telephone and is maybe answering e-mail while browsing,” Gassman said.

Burke views these tools as a way to enforce policy rather than as a step closer to a Big Brother-type scenario.

“The Web and e-mail and instant messaging are all powerful tools in business, and most people don’t want to take them away. It’s all in the way that it’s presented to employees – nobody wants to see their name on a wall with their Internet usage stat and a list of Web sites that they’re visiting, but I don’t think that most companies would do that,” Burke said.

While Staker admits that the tools could be used in a Draconian way, most companies don’t.

“The Internet is like our next society because people spend so much time in there, but as any society evolves you need some rules and regulations. I think of the Internet today as being in the wild, wild west stage of society development. You let everybody get to it and hopefully you have enough guns to get all of the bad stuff,” Staker said.

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