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Internet Access Policies For Your Company

What is a corporate access internet policy (IAP), why do you need one and what should it include?

An IAP is a basic statement of your company's policies regarding use of company computers to access the Internet. You need one to stay out of trouble. It should include rules limiting your employees' use of the Internet to what your company's culture and needs dictate are acceptable.

I think that we can probably all agree that Internet access at work will soon be as common as access to a telephone. Whether "soon" means two, five or 25 years isn't relevant. The point is that it will happen. (My personal bet is five years.) If you don't think this will happen soon, you're missing the boat big time. I guarantee it. (As a lawyer, I don't guarantee much, so you might want to take me up on this one.)

It will occur for the same reasons that the telephone quickly landed on every corporate desktop. The Internet will soon become the best way to obtain cost-effective access to a wide range of information and will also open up new business opportunities.

It's true that not every employee needs Internet access from their desk, but then the kid flipping the burgers probably doesn't need a phone at his station either. The point is that many functions now handled non-electronically will soon be handled by a computer, transmitted by the Internet and at a tremendous cost and time savings.

Inevitably every employee that now needs a telephone, or sends or receives mail will require Internet access. The Internet is already the most cost effective and fastest way to obtain immeasurable amounts of information. If you need to know if a flight is on time, the Internet may already be the fastest way to find out. If it isn't yet, give it a couple of years.

When you need information about a company, there is no quicker, easier and cost- effective way to get it than from their web site. When a potential client wants information about you, there is no better way to get a corporate brochure in front of them than your web site.

I've had potential clients call up my web site during an initial telephone call. A first telephone call can quickly become an interactive audio-visual presentation with the help of a web site. However, all of this requires that employees with telephones have Internet access.

Those who now send or receive "snail mail" (computerese for "U.S. Mail" or even an overnight service like FedEx), can communicate almost instantly with your leads, customers, and vendors using Internet e-mail. And they can do this at a fraction of the cost of a stamp, envelope, and paper.

You Need an IAP to Avoid Problems/h2> Unfortunately, Internet access is not without its problems. Without a well-written IAP, your company may find that the benefits of Internet access are outweighed by the risks and costs. These may include reduced productivity, as well as claims of sexual harassment, defamation and copyright infringement.

You should use an IAP to highlight the risks and state what the company deems to be appropriate Internet use. Appropriate use is a relative concept which will vary depending upon your corporate culture. For example, you may require that all use be business use. Alternatively, you might choose to allow some personal or recreational use for the same reasons that you tolerate some personal phone calls and the office football pool.

You will want to guard against the most significant problem related to Internet use which is reduced employee productivity arising from time wasted surfing the Web. Your IAP should state that you will monitor Internet use. You should then have your Information Systems people set up appropriate software to log sites visited by your employees.

Whatever you do, you should not monitor your employee's Internet activities secretly. You will open yourself up to charges of invasion of privacy and will create hard feelings when they discover your little secret (think Nixon). Just announce that you monitor and you avoid these problems.

Even better is to have every employee sign a consent which, in part, says something like, "Employee consents to the employer monitoring all of the employee's Internet activities including, but not limited to, web sites accessed, newsgroup activities and e-mail content." (Newsgroups are a lesser known part of the Internet. Newsgroups are like electronic bulletin boards where people can see what is essentially an e-mail which is "electronically posted" for countless millions to see.)

Limiting Access to Adult Sites/h2> You may want to limit the types of sites that employees can visit from the company's computer. For example, most companies choose to limit access to adult sites for several reasons including lost productivity (I wonder why?), potential for public embarrassment, and the possibility of sexual harassment charges.

Your company's reputation is at stake here. IBM, Apple and AT&T discovered this when the press reported that their employees had accessed Penthouse's web site thousands of times each month. (Without going off on a tangent to explain how Penthouse would have known that its Web site had many visitors from these companies, suffice it to say that although Penthouse would have no way of knowing the identity of the person who visited its site, knowing that it had a visitor from one of these companies would be easy.)

As for sexual harassment-what if a female employee happens to stroll by and gets a gander of the "boys" lunch break. Could the boys viewing adult sites at the office make your office a "hostile work environment" under sexual harassment laws? That's an interesting question best avoided by prohibiting access to adult sites from the office.

Some General Points for your IAP

Your IAP should prohibit all unlawful and offensive communication. It should prohibit defamation, copyright infringement, inaccurate claims about your company and limit communications to publicly available information that you don't mind your competition viewing.

An employee posting information to your web site could potentially expose sensitive information to the competition's prying eyes. Just because you intend certain information to be viewed by customers only doesn't mean that your competition will miss the opportunity to view otherwise difficult to obtain information about you. For example, you might want to consider just how easy you want to make it for your competition to have your latest price list.

You may want to set up a series of checks before any employee posts any content to your web site. This procedure could prevent a disastrous blunder. The potential for countless viewers to your web site magnifies any potential mistake immeasurably.

While the Internet's omnipresence at the workplace may be inevitable, it's not without its potential for problems. The Internet, like any revolutionary tool, can help your business, but only if you use it correctly. An absolutely essential part of correct use is a skillfully drawn IAP written by an attorney who specializes in the unique and new issues created by the Internet.

The form out of the legal form book won't cut it here. There is no one, correct-for- everyone, cookie cutter IAP. The culture and needs of each business vary different. Your IAP should be as unique as your business. Properly written, it can help make the Internet the wondrous tool that it should be.



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