You can find computers practically anywhere you can find employees. They're used in businesses big and small, and by federal and state government agencies, for everything from managing and storing data to creating documents and presentations. Many employers limit employees' use of the web. Is it legal?

Yes, as a general rule, but there are some legal issues to keep in mind.

Internet Policies

Many employers have "internet usage" policies that limit or restrict how their employees may use the internet on employer-owned computers. Some employers even monitor or track what workers are doing on the internet and when. Why? There are several reasons:

  • Productivity. Employees playing games, shopping, or just surfing on the internet aren't working
  • Security. Employers need to be sure employees aren't sharing confidential information with anyone outside the company. They also need to make sure workers don't download viruses or other malicious programs that may damage company computers or networks
  • Illegal activities. Employees using company-owned computers to view pornography, harass co-workers, or gamble (in states where it's illegal) open up the employer to potential lawsuits and even criminal charges

There are many different ways employers can limit or restrict web usage. For instance, a policy may be based on the honor system where workers agree not to use their computers inappropriately. More often than not, however, employers use special software or programs that make it impossible for workers to access certain types of websites. Some of these programs also let employers track the websites employees visit, when, how often, and for how long.

Legal Issues

At first blush, it seems internet usage policies violate workers' privacy or other legal rights. Generally, though, they don't. The employers own the computers, the servers, the networks, etc., employees need and use to access the web, so they have the right to monitor or restrict that activity. There are some limits, though. For example:

Government employers, like federal and state agencies, may run into First Amendment free speech issues by restricting access to information and ideas on the web. As a general rule, the First Amendment and other constitutional protections are triggered only when government action is involved.

For instance, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the federal agency in charge of security for the nation's transportation systems, had an internet policy that barred employees from accessing web sites containing "controversial opinions." In July 2010, TSA dropped that ban, most probably because such a broad ban would violate TSA employees' First Amendment rights.

Personal computers. Employers can't force employees to divulge information stored on their own personal computers. Nor can they force employees to install or run company-provided software or programs to limit or restrict their web usage on their personal computers.

An exception, however, may be if the employee uses company-owned software or programs to access work computers and servers on their personal computers. In such cases, it's possible the company's usage policy may be enforced while an employee is working.

Do You Need One?

In July 2010, it was discovered that dozens of military officials and defense contractors at the Pentagon were suspected of accessing, buying, and downloading child pornography on government-owned computers. It's unclear of the government computers had filters or other programs to restrict access to such materials, but it doesn't seem likely.

This a good example of why employers need a strong internet usage policy. This type of activity is bad for any employer's reputation. Also, as surmised by government investigators in the Pentagon debacle, it makes employees a target for blackmail and bribery, which can cripple a business: Give me those company secrets or I'll tell the world about the kiddie porn you bought.

What You Can Do

For employers looking to start an internet usage policy:

  • Put the policy in writing (put it in your employee handbook) and have employees sign an acknowledgement that they've read and understand the policy
  • Make sure the policy is applied equally and fairly to all employees
  • Restrict usage to business purposes only, but if you choose to allow personal use, bar any activities that may interfere with productivity during work hours, such as chat rooms, gaming sites, and shopping
  • Bar sexually explicit web sites under any circumstance
  • Make it clear that violations have severe consequences, including suspensions and termination
  • Have the policy reviewed each year by an attorney to make sure it's up-to-date with current legal requirements, and have it reviewed by an information technology specialist to make sure it's doing what it's supposed to do
  • Have yearly education sessions to remind employees about the policy

For employees, follow the policy set by your employer. If you have any questions about the policy, ask your supervisor human resources department. Put yourself in your employer's shoes: Would you pay someone for eight hours of work when he spends two or three of those hours surfing the web for non-work purposes?

Businesses big and small need computers. Having a good internet usage policy in place and having employees understand and follow the policy will help any business be more productive and efficient.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can my employer look at my emails on my work computer but in a private email account?
  • Can I put web cams on my employees' computers and use them without their consent?
  • Is it discrimination if I don't give all employees access to the internet?

Tagged as: Labor and Employment, Human Resources Law, web restriction, internet restriction