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12/12/2003
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The Privacy Lawyer: Crack The Online Whip

Parry Aftab says the real world provides five good reasons why you should keep a tight rein on employees' use of the Web. And like Charlie Brown's foil, Lucy, often threatens to do, the real world will crack those five reasons on your skull if you get lax.

The results of InformationWeek Research's cyberloafing survey of 225 business-technology professionals are in are in and, not surprisingly, 91% admit to personal Internet use at work. Fifty-nine percent of those responding reported that they were IT staff or management, with the remainder being business management (17%), business staff (6%), consultants (9%) and other (9%).

Sixty-one percent admitted to spending fewer than 2 hours a week for personal surfing and Internet communications, while 38% admitted spending more than 2 hours a week. (Fully 91% spent one to six hours a week using the Internet for personal purposes.) Seventy-seven percent acknowledged knowing that they are subject to an acceptable-use policy, with another 8% saying they didn't know of such a policy.

online_chart3.gifAlmost half (45%) reported that their acceptable-use policy restricted or prohibited personal use of the Internet at work; 43% reported that theirs did not. It didn't seem to make any difference what the policy was because almost everyone responding used it for personal purposes anyway.

While the statistics are enlightening, the comments given to us by respondents are even more enlightening.

Several respondents commented that taking the survey on company time was violating their acceptable-use policies. Most, however, agreed that as long as the work gets done and Internet use isn't abused, it should be allowed in moderation.

"I believe that as long as the use is reasonable and doesn't detract from what the employee is expected to get done each week, it should be allowed," said one survey-taker.

Many were concerned about inappropriate surfing (to hate, porn, and dating sites, for instance) and felt that should be prohibited. Some believed it was no different from smoking breaks or trips to the water cooler. According to one respondent, "It's just like taking a smoke break or reading the newspaper. As long as your work gets done on time, I don't see why it should be prohibited."

online_chart6.gifRather than being a waste of time, many respondents felt personal use of the Internet makes employees more productive. "It actually keeps people at their desk rather than taking time off, or getting on the phone, or wasting time." "It saves time in some cases, but if the company would rather I waste time on the phone being kept on hold, fine, it's their time I'm wasting," said another respondent.

The most interesting responses, however, were those who defended personal use because of changes in the workplace. "Work and personal time have merged in the modern workplace," said one respondent. Some saw it as a quid pro quo for the personal time they give up to work, given the fluidity of the workplace and telecommuting. "For me," replied one survey-taker, "it's the best use of time. I work during times that should be 'off' to take care of various time-sensitive projects. It's a trade off."

Bottom line, except when legal or security risks are involved, it comes down to productivity. One of the respondents said it very well: "The final benchmark of employee productivity shouldn't be total time, but the quality of the work product produced. If an individual surfs a few hours a week, but produces outstanding work product, it's up to the enterprise to decide what it truly values."

online_chart7.gif

Parry Aftab is a cyberspace lawyer, specializing in online privacy and security law. She can be reached at parry@aftab.com.

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