Report, video: Dangerous surfing?

Downloading President Clinton's video testimony or spamming the office on the Starr report could land employees in hot water.

4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--It was a familiar scene: employees crowded around a computer monitor waiting to see President Clinton sweat.

"A couple of us here spent about half an hour downloading and watching segments from CNN," said an employee at the company based here, who wished to remain anonymous. "We had to stop as work was getting neglected. However, I've seen a few people going back every so often to look at another clip--those guys minimized their browsers in case anyone wanted to talk to them while the clips were playing."

In something of an instant replay of the response to independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report online, viewers rushed to television and the Internet to watch the four-hour videotape of Clinton's testimony about his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky once it was released this morning.

But downloading the lengthy Clinton video or spamming the office with a potentially offensive section from the Starr report could land some employees in hot water.

Many companies have made Net usage a regular part of the workday, but some employers are beginning to clamp down on in-house surfers who play games, look up sports scores, or loiter in pornographic sites. And the sexually explicit tales in the Starr report and Clinton's testimony video aren't exempt.

Even if they don't view related material online while on the job, employees can still get into trouble if they discuss its contents with coworkers, orally or electronically.

"The problem with the Starr report, although it is an important political document, is that it has very sexually explicit material in it, and employees could take the most salacious excerpts and circulate them. That is being done and could come close to creating a workplace that is hostile," said Michael Overly, whose new book is entitled Epolicy: How to develop computer, email, and Internet policies to protect your company and its assets.

"We've had our clients call about this specific issue," he added. "Some companies have sent emails to their employees telling them not to circulate the report."

A random sampling of some large companies where workers regularly use the Internet indicates that workplace distractions have not reached epidemic proportions. Intel, America Online, IBM, and AMD, for example, all claim that employees are not spending excess time poring over the online details surrounding the White House sex scandal.

"We don't hawk-eye people here," said an employee at Disney Online. "I haven't seen a single email that has gone around our part of the company mentioning the report or saying it shouldn't be accessed."

The same goes for AOL. "We have a flexible work environment--it's our employees' jobs to be on the service all day," spokeswoman Pam McGraw said. "As long as people get their jobs done, if they want to listen to the testimony, that is fine."

Still, it may be difficult for companies to know if preoccupation with the scandal--or any other major news event--is affecting productivity.

"Most usage of news sites is coming from work," said Peter Krasilovsky, an analyst with Arlen Communications. "There are fairly lax policies around the country about that."

Because of the explicit nature of some passages in the Starr report, workplace surfers may actually have been blocked by filters employed by companies that render sex sites off limits.

Employees who aren't hindered by filters and manage to get caught surfing for pleasure still could get reprimanded at some firms for abusing company resources.

"If [customers' calls were taking] 15 minutes to answer, and we caught 100 employees viewing the Clinton video, in reality they wouldn't have jobs," said Michael Ihde, vice president of human relations for Net access provider EarthLink Network.

"We have an acceptable-use policy, which defines that customers are the most important reason for doing business," he added. "We have informed people to be very careful. At the same time, we give them a free account at home so, if they want to access it at night, that is their prerogative."

Overly said only 40 percent of all companies have an Internet usage policy in place. Seattle's Boeing is one such firm, with more than 100,000 employees online and plenty of rules to govern their workplace conduct.

"If it's Clinton and the Starr report or a new exhibit at the Smithsonian, it all falls into the same category: We have a policy that these are company-provided tools and equipment and used for company business to make the employee more productive," said Bob Jorgensen, a spokesmen for the nation's largest aerospace company.

"Our policy states that before work or during lunch, if people need to conduct personal searches on the Net, that is fine as long as they are not looking up inappropriate sexual or hate sites," he added. "If that material were a calendar on your desk, poster on your wall, fax, or telephone call, that would make other people uncomfortable. It is not permissible, and disciplinary action will take place."

Boeing doesn't deem the Starr report inappropriate online material and said there has been no increase in traffic on the company's servers since the video testimony went live.

About a third of the approximately 54,000 people employed by Kodak in the United States also have Net access at work. "It's pretty well known that it is intended for business use," said Paul Allen, a spokesman for the photography giant. "It hasn't been a problem for us in the past few weeks."

But if employees do get distracted by the Starr report or spend time shipping it around to coworkers, an acceptable-use policy could be the rope they hang on.

"Employers also can use [such policies] to protect themselves from [sexual harassment liability]," said Jim Butler, an attorney for Arnall, Golden & Gregory who has written Net usage policies for Fortune 500 companies.

"The policies are there if the companies feel a need to enforce them," he added. "They are rarely enforced, but employees are motivated more by a fear of getting caught."