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Web Access Limits: Not Suitable for Work?

SEC porn surfers shine a spotlight on rules for employee Internet access.

When news broke in April that 28 Securities and Exchange Commission staffers had been caught porn-surfing, it was a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In fact, ever since Internet access became common at work, companies have struggled over whether and how to limit employee access to certain sites.

Companies have many reasons for wanting employees to avoid recreational Web use; surprisingly, productivity isn’t one of their more-pressing concerns. In several joint studies by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association between 2001 and 2009, employers consistently said they most feared legal liabilities, followed by security breaches. “Productivity is pretty far down on the risk-management scale,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the institute, a for-profit company that helps organizations establish policies for employees’ electronic activity.

Nor is the SEC’s embarrassing revelation a particularly anomalous form of Internet abuse. Most of the lawsuits for which Flynn serves as an expert witness revolve around pornography, in the form of hostile-work-environment and sexual-harassment claims.

Web surfing and e-mail have been joined by instant messaging, texting, blogs, and other forms of interactivity that constitute what Flynn calls “the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence” that can be used in lawsuits or, at the least, provide a
public-relations black eye.

Companies should update applicable policies and, perhaps, invest in monitoring software, which is now more sophisticated and less expensive than ever. But it’s not easy to decide just how far to go. “I think we’re still suffering from a hangover regarding [the severe limits] employers initially put on employee Internet access,” says James Richards, a human-resources expert who authored a recent paper on the topic. “If employers were more forward-thinking, they could probably find a better balance” between the risks of inappropriate use and the benefits of unfettered access to information and collaboration.

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