When Internet Access Attacks

After sitting down at your desk, you embark on what you think is a pleasant high-speed surfing trip, when suddenly...well, all right, we admit we don't have any exciting, graphic videos to show you like those suddenly popular "reality shows" on TV. But if your company does not have a policy on Internet use, you may be in need of a dose of "Internet reality."

The Great Debate

Most companies would agree that widely available, high-speed Internet access has been a boon, allowing employees to finish work faster and lower communication costs.

Pessimists, however, see a huge potential for distraction. For example, online brokerages report the vast majority of their Internet traffic during business hours. This makes sense since that is when the stock exchanges are open. But now that the Internet provides employees the ability to day trade behind closed office doors, the theory is that some will use that freedom to abuse company time.

As a result many companies have adopted an Internet abuse policy outlining what use of the company's time and resources is acceptable. As many as 40% of companies monitor employees' web site usage and e-mail (which they can legally do).

Lost Productivity

Abuse of Internet resources can have significant effects on a company. At a low level, one obvious downside is the use of bandwidth. A user who, say, listens to an online radio station during the day may think they are not bothering anyone. However, an audio broadcast typically takes around 20-30k of bandwidth. If your company has a 200k DSL connection, this means all other Internet activity during the day will be up to 15% slower. Five or six listeners can slow your Internet connection to a crawl. And that does not take into account the lost productivity of other users waiting for web sites to download.

In a previous article entitled "Time Is Money - But How Much?" we discussed the effects of productivity increases. One example was that for an employee with an annual loaded salary - which includes benefits, office equipment, rent, etc. - of $40,000, one hour saved per week resulted in savings of $1,000 per year. By the same logic, one hour of "wasted" time per day for this employee translates to $5,000 per year! And the example one hour per day is not unreasonable when you take into account reading and responding to personal e-mails as well as web surfing.

There are legal worries, too. Chevron and Microsoft have both settled sexual harassment lawsuits for over $2 million apiece due to messages circulated on their internal e-mail system. Several universities were initially named in the lawsuits against Napster for unknowingly allowing their Internet connections to be used to share copyrighted music (after they blocked access they were dropped from the suits).

What Problem?

Advocates of a liberal approach to the issue point out that our national productivity levels are at all-time highs, largely due to the computer age. Their theory is that employers should be happy that employees are more productive, and trust employees to manage their own time wisely without looking over their shoulders.

They point out that "Generation Y" employees have been weaned on the Internet, and sometimes view it as a right, not a perk. Employers who use a heavy-handed approach to the Internet may risk alienating prospective employees looking for more liberal Internet access policies.

A Plan Of Action

Before you can determine if any abuse is occurring, you must define what "abuse" means to your company. We suggest analyzing your employees and corporate culture to determine if any problems exist, and whether any action is necessary. Appropriate actions may range from casual discussions to an official policy outlining acceptable Internet and telephone usage.

Any "strict" policy should make it clear that company resources are to be used exclusively for company business purposes, and not for personal communications. Further, the policy should state that the e-mail system is the property of the company, and employees should accordingly have no expectation of privacy with respect to information transmitted on the system. If you suspect serious abuse, software is available to monitor not only e-mail and web site access but mouse clicks and keystrokes as well. Unfortunately it can be expensive.

Note that your company's Internet policy does not have to be all-or-nothing. For example, you could inform your employees that your company would not monitor e-mail communications unless you believed the system was being used for activities harmful to the company. This would let the employees know about your privacy policy but still let them use their own judgement in determining their behavior. Also, you might encourage web surfers to take advantage of your new high speed connection after hours or during lunch breaks.

October 2000

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