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No secrets hidden from web bosses


By Aimee Brown

You might think you're safe in your cubicle, away from prying eyes and nosey colleagues, but every stroke of your keyboard is being monitored. So the next time you use the office computer to surf for the cheapest holiday package or download the latest songs, someone could be watching you.

The dividing line between appropriate and inappropriate personal internet use at work is hazy, and defined on a company-by-company basis, according to University of NSW Faculty of Law Associate Professor Joellen Riley. "The problem is there are no specific laws that give anyone particular rights as far as internet, email or even phone use at work,'' she says. "It's all up to whatever the deal is between the employer and employee.

"Employment law puts pretty much all the power in the hands of the employer. It's not a question of our own moral judgment of what people should and shouldn't look at in their own homes; it's about whose property it is. If you're using equipment provided by the employer, then the employer has the prerogative to determine the rights of use.''

Riley says most companies present employees with detailed outlines of their particular internet and email use policies, either in their initial contract or via the work intranet, to protect themselves against legal risks and to minimise disagreements over acceptable use.

While it is clearly inappropriate to do things such as downloading pornographic material at work, Riley says many employers allow for a degree of personal use. "Especially in a work culture where people put in extra hours without necessarily putting in overtime, there is room for reasonable use,'' she says.

This approach is adopted by Westpac, which permits workers to use the internet at work to do things such as online banking and bill-paying. Westpac spokesman David Lording says the company posts its internet code of use guidelines on its intranet.

"People are aware of it,'' he says. "In terms of sending personal emails or using the internet for a private purpose, we allow for a limited use. We understand that banks are great providers of internet services -- internet banking is our fastest growing area and only one in 10 transactions are now done in the bank. But we ask our staff to be self-managing -- they can't be surfing the internet all day.''

National Australia Bank spokeswoman Jacquie Davis says the bank has adopted a similar policy. "We have an electronic communication policy in place that clearly outlines what is appropriate use,'' she says. "We trust people to use the system appropriately and for the right purposes, but we do undertake some ad hoc monitoring if, for example, people are accessing internet sites that are causing potential problems to the system, such as sports sites that continually update scores.''

KPMG demographer Bernard Salt says increasing flexibility in the workplace contributes to the grey area when it comes to personal internet use in work time. "There is a fusion of work and private life occurring. If people go home and have a meal with their family then log on and answer work emails for 45 minutes, but in the morning at work they spend seven minutes doing their internet banking, I would consider that reasonable,'' he says.

"Work these days is measured in outcomes and delivery. How you choose to produce these outcomes is entirely up to you. But there are still reasonable limits. Doing your internet banking or responding to emails from your kids is reasonable; it does not extend to conducting a hobby online during work hours.'' Joel Cassimar, Australian manager of internet filter and security provider Websense, says most Australian companies use internet filtering tools to varying degrees.

"We really don't advise as to what they should filter. It varies according to the culture of the organisation,'' he says. "Some have a very rigid policy while other organisations are more relaxed.''

Surfing on work time

A survey by international internet filter and security provider Websense revealed:

- Men surf more than women. Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of men who access the internet from work admit to accessing non-work-related websites compared to 58 per cent of women;

- Of those who access non-work-related websites at work, men admitted to spending on average 2.3 hours per week on personal-related websites, and women admitted to spending 1.5 hours per week;

- Fifty-two per cent of men reported they visit personal email websites while at work, in contrast to 45 per cent of women;

- Forty-two per cent of men access sports-related websites at work, compared to only 18 per cent of women;

- Women are more likely to play games during the work day: 11 per cent of women (up on 6 per cent in 2005) stated they play games on their work PC at least once a week, compared to 7 per cent of men.

* Source: Web@work Study, Websense. Released May 2006.

If you're not sure what your company's stance is on internet and email usage at work, ask for a copy of the company policy. Most organisations outline their guidelines on your contract or on the company intranet. Associate Professor Joellen Riley, of the faculty of law at the University of NSW, says if you're unsure, it's best to err on the side of caution and limit using work computers for personal purposes. "You should take the approach that as soon as you enter the work place, you're in the public arena,'' she says.

Although aimed at internet use by children and teenagers, the NetAlert website ( is a good source of information. Guidelines set out by the Federal Privacy Minister, at  provide specific information about email and internet usage while at work.

The Daily Telegraph

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