Employers wiping out Net surfing on the job


Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
CHICAGO - The Web can be a great waste of time at work.
From catching up on the latest weird videos to planning a wedding, millions of people use the Internet every day. But much of that surfing is done from a cubicle, leading to hours of questionable productivity and strained resources.
In response, workplace Internet policies are getting stricter.
Companies are starting to ban Web access, block instant messaging services to squash discreet conversations among chatty co-workers and prohibit employees from watching sporting events on their computers.
"If you're watching video, you're probably not working," said Vimal Solanki, director of product marketing at McAfee Inc., a software vendor whose products to block Web access are selling briskly.
In fact, the Web has become so addictive that 54 percent of men said they would rather give up their morning coffee than lose their personal Internet fix at work, according to a new survey. And 47 percent of women said they would do the same.
"The Internet has become the modern day equivalent of the phone," said Richard Chaifetz, chief executive officer of ComPsych, a Chicago-based provider of employee assistance programs. "The difference is the phone is more obvious, you know when someone is talking. But the Internet is more stealth. It can be hard to tell when someone is online."
This is where the new restrictions come into play. In state government offices across Illinois, for example, workers have access to sports sites such as ESPN.com, but they can't watch the streaming video that accompanies game highlights. The reason: Internet video is a huge drains on resources, affecting not only productivity and but also clogging network bandwidth.
The rapid growth of online video is only one reason why workplace Internet restrictions are getting tougher.
Other concerns include guarding against legal threats, such as sexual harassment, and preventing malicious software from disabling a corporate network.
"I'm paid to be paranoid," said Mike Ward, the director of information services at Anderson Hospital in Maryville, Ill. "I make sure we're secure."
At Ward's Downstate hospital, Internet access for nurses and other staff is severely restricted. Only a few employees can even use the hospital's e-mail system to send a personal note, and they cannot use Internet-based e-mail systems, such as Gmail or Hotmail.
At one point, Ward even blocked access to the Google search engine, but he has since rescinded that policy, even though many of the Web sites that a search query will return cannot be accessed.
For workers who find themselves unplugged, the experience is very "Big Brother-ish," said an administrator for a large health-care organization in suburban Detroit that instituted a strict policy last year.
"It can be a big barrier if you are trying to research a topic or even order supplies," said the worker, who asked not to be named.
To access the Internet, the worker needs to fill out a form stating the business case and have it approved by a manager before the IT department will grant access.
"It's not timely and is such a pain in the butt," the worker said. And if someone does get online without permission, "you can get in big trouble."
Indeed, an employee for the New York City education department was recently fired for using the Web to read online news reports and visit travel sites while at work. He had been warned to stop.
That is not an isolated case. According to a survey conducted in 2005 by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association, 26 percent of employers have fired workers for misusing the Internet. A total of 526 companies responded to the survey.
It also found that 65 percent of companies use software to limit or block Internet access, a 27 percent increase since the survey was last conducted in 2001.
"I'm surprised it's not 100 percent," said Nancy Flynn, executive director of ePolicy, a consulting firm that works with companies to reduce Internet risks.
"I don't think it's extreme to enforce that an employee's computer use is for the company, not personal business."
The biggest reason why, Flynn said, is legal liability.
"The courts make no distinction between electronic messages and paper messages," she said. "If your organization is involved in a lawsuit, you can take it to the bank that your employees' e-mail messages will be subpoenaed and their history of Internet surfing could be looked at, too."
She added that inappropriate Web surfing, such as a worker who visits a pornographic site and positions the computer screen so other workers see the images, could trigger a sexual harassment suit.
Another survey found that 16 percent of men who access the Web from work had visited a porn site, while only 8 percent of women had done so.
Furthermore, that survey found that men spent an average of 2.3 hours per week at non-work-related Web sites, while women said they spent 1.5 hours each week at such sites, according to Internet security firm Websense Inc. The results are from 500 workers who have work access to the Internet at companies with at least 100 employees.
Over the past year, sales of hardware and software products to restrict Web access have been increasing, said McAfee's Solanki. "Videos, MP3 files and other such content is choking up Internet resources and not allowing the networks to work well."
The concern over Internet access can have consequences.
A co-worker of the suburban Detroit administrator wanted to take advantage of an employee discount program to buy a new mobile phone. But the vendor wouldn't allow the purchase to be made from a home computer.
The problem: an employer policy prohibiting on-line shopping from work.

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