Does your company have an Internet Access Policy (IAP)? If not, it should. If it does have one, it's probably time to update it.
An Internet Access Policy 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 a variety of rules that limit your employees' use of the Internet and clearly state what your company's culture and needs dictate are acceptable uses of Internet access.
I think that we can probably all agree that Internet access at work has become as common as access to a telephone. This has occurred for the same reason the telephone quickly landed on every corporate desktop. The Internet has simply become the best way to obtain cost-effective access to a wide range of information and also opens up new business opportunities.
It's true that not every employee needs Internet access from their desk, but then the kid flipping the burgers behind the counter probably doesn't need a telephone at his station either. The point is that many functions that used to be handled non-electronically are being handled by computers across the Internet and at a tremendous savings in terms of cost and time.
The Internet is 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 has become the fastest way to find out.
When you need information about a company, there is no quicker or easier way to get it than from their website. When a potential client wants information about you, there is no better way to get a corporate brochure in front of them than your company website.
I've had potential clients visit my website while I was on the phone with them during an initial telephone call. A first telephone call can quickly become an interactive audio-visual presentation with the help of a website.
By allowing employees access to the Internet, many companies have greatly reduced their mailing costs associated with stamps and envelopes. In many areas, email has replaced "snail mail" (computerese for "U.S. Mail" or even an overnight service like FedEx) entirely since companies and employees can communicate almost instantly with leads, customers, and vendors using email.
You Need an IAP to Avoid Problems
Unfortunately, providing your employees with 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 employee productivity, as well as claims of sexual harassment, defamation, and copyright infringement.
You should use an IAP to highlight the risks and clearly 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-related 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 your employees 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, websites accessed, email content, and programs downloaded."
Limiting Access to Adult Sites
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. There are a variety of tools your Information Systems people can use to limit employee access to these websites.
Your company's reputation is at stake here. IBM, Apple, and AT&T discovered this several years ago when the press reported that their employees had accessed Penthouse's website thousands of times each month. (Without going off on a tangent to explain how Penthouse would have known that its website 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 a question you don't want to fight over in court and one that can best be 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 website 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 website, and limit the number of employees who can actually post any content on your website. These rules and procedures could prevent a disastrous blunder. The potential for countless visitors to your website magnifies any potential mistake immeasurably.
While the Internet has become omnipresent in the workplace, it's not without 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.
A form out of the 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. Your IAP should be as unique as your business. Properly written, it can help make the Internet the wondrous tool that it should be.