Can employees using the internet on the job cause legal problems for their employer?

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Widespread access to the Internet in the workplace has opened up worlds of information for employees and the companies for which they work. The downside is that it is also possible for online employees to create new legal headaches for employers.

Numerous variations on this theme have already occurred. A supervisor accesses sexually explicit websites and then harasses a subordinate by passing on inappropriate material. An employee takes text or images from the Internet and puts them into his e-mail, unaware that federal copyright law prohibits alteration of copyrighted material, such as by removing the author’s name or manipulating images. Someone with too much time on his hands becomes a chat room regular and one day the “chat” turns defamatory. A worker without much sense of his company’s privacy puts sensitive information about his employer, or worse, trade secrets, into cyberspace.

To minimize the inappropriate use of the Internet, to lay the groundwork for disciplinary action when an employee acts improperly, and to minimize exposure to liability, businesses should adopt clearly written policies on Internet access on company time. The details of such an Internet “acceptable use policy” should be tailored to the specific business, and care should be taken that legal requirements are met. A few ingredients are indispensable to any policy: (1) descriptions of what is acceptable and unacceptable use of the Internet; (2) a statement that the computer system belongs to the company and that employees have no privacy interest in the information passing through it; and (3) notice to employees that their e?mails and Internet use may be monitored.

In short, there is a middle ground between the extremes of placing no restraints on employees and imposing a complete ban on all personal use of the Internet. An acceptable use policy can allow personal use within “reasonable limits,” but specific limits will make enforcement easier and provide more protection for the employer. For example, the employer might prohibit chain e-mails because of the space they take up in the company’s computer system.

Warning employees about monitoring is especially important since people tend to assume that the activities on their computers are private. Also, since federal law prohibits interception of wire communications unless one party consents, any monitoring should be preceded by having the employee give written consent to it, or by having a message to the same effect appear on computer screens when employees log on. Technological advances that created the potential for problems may also help with the monitoring. Unusually large files could suggest inappropriate employee use of the Internet, as files containing graphics, video, or audio are often sizable. Filtering software can be used to screen or block access to websites with profanity or other language that is inappropriate to the workplace.