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It's my Internet--I can do what I want

Employees are roaming the Net at work for their own personal use, a potential liability for companies, attorney Eric J. Sinrod says.

Employees are roaming free on the Internet for their own personal use while at work, according to a recent survey of more than 10,000 employees by Burstek, a provider of employee Internet management solutions.

The unofficial worker anthem seems to be, "It's my Internet--I can do what I want," (perhaps sung to the tune of The Animals' "It's My Life").

Some of the findings of the study are fairly startling. For example, employees across all industries spend 20.42 percent of their Internet viewing time at work on personal business or personal entertainment activities. Along these lines, 20.01 percent of all Internet access at work is for personal use, 22.39 percent of all Web pages accessed at work are for personal use, and 21.28 percent of all work bandwidth costs are attributed to personal use.
Plainly, employers have good reason to be worried about personal Internet use in the workplace.

Such personal use would appear to detract from time devoted to work-related tasks and can increase employer costs.

According to the study, 72.34 percent of all employee personal use of the Internet in the workplace has to do with "employee productivity draining Web sites," including the following types of sites in order of highest use: shopping, entertainment, personal e-mail, sports, chat rooms, job searches and game playing. This "employee productivity loss" group accounts for 93.99 percent of personal use bandwidth costs for employers.

As if this alone were not worthy enough for concern, the study goes on to document that 8.23 percent of the personal use of the Internet in the workplace involves visits to Web sites that pose potential legal liability for employers, such as pornographic and gambling sites and sites that contain hate speech and the like.

The study shows that the manufacturing sector has the highest abuse of Web sites that pose potential legal liability for employers, with almost 13 percent of users accessing pornographic, gambling, dating and other sites that can give rise to liability. Surprisingly, education workers come in second in this category, with 2.44 percent of them accessing pornographic Web sites, as an example of their online workplace conduct.

Of further worry, 19.42 percent of personal use of the Internet by employees involves activities that pose potential threats to employer network security, such as file sharing, the use of malicious code, spyware and more.

As it turns out, governmental agencies have the highest incidence of employees accessing sites containing spyware and malicious code. In fact, almost 23 percent of governmental personal use is attributed to these high-risk activities.

Plainly, employers have good reason to be worried about personal Internet use in the workplace. It is important for employers to develop acceptable Internet usage policies and to utilize appropriate Web filtering.

The policies and filtering (if any) should match the given mission and culture of an organization. And while a knee-jerk reaction might be to seriously restrict personal Internet access of employees, employers should bear in mind that some freedom actually can boost employee morale and can lead to increased employee productivity in certain circumstances. Of course, efforts definitely should be made to reduce potential legal liability as much as possible. But this is a sensitive area that deserves care and attention.