Is the Internet a shocking waste of time? IT pundits once enthused over the notion of a personal computer on every desk. These days the computer must also have access to the Internet. In theory this brings unparalleled benefits in terms of information and allows employees to exchange important e-mail messages with suppliers and customers.
In practice, the system is widely abused. E-mail in-trays are full of personal communications. Worse still, huge numbers of employees are busily exploring the Internet's entertainment resources at their employers' expense. Recent press reports of 'surf-skiving' have drawn attention to the high incidence of employee visits to sex-related sites in particular.
'It's a problem. Surfing the Internet has replaced computer games as the biggest waste of time in the office,' observes Hilary Pearson, a lawyer specialising in IT matters at the central London law firm Bird & Bird.
In Pearson's view, gross misuse constitutes sure grounds for dismissal: one of her clients recently fired several employees who were caught downloading and storing pornography on their company computer. At the very least, Pearson advises, firms should issue guidelines setting out the purposes for which Internet access is available and, equally clearly, what uses are proscribed.
At Internet access provider UUNet Pipex of Cambridge, spokesman Richard Woods goes along with Pearson's assessment. 'Managers are becoming paranoid about this sort of thing,' he says. One solution might be to use computer 'firewalls', which are normally intended to keep hackers out but can also serve to block access to particular sites. However in the fast-changing world of the Web it can also be a considerable problem for companies to keep track of the sites to which access should be barred.
Another solution, Woods proposes, is to model Internet usage on the corporate car park: which should be slightly smaller than is really needed, to encourage employees to arrive early. 'Restrict Internet access during office hours, but make it open house after hours so that employees can shop on-line, book holidays or just browse,' he recommends. A lot of organisations would surely feel uneasy allowing their staff so much freedom. But for one big employer, certainly, that freedom would be far too restrictive.
'IBM does not have a strategy of barring employees from visiting sites on the Internet,' explains spokesman Simon Ward. 'We monitor the usage of sites, and providing this freedom is not abused - in terms of pornography and the like - we regard it as part of our employees' learning curve.
In our experience of people using the Internet, there is an immediate hit of frivolous searches, but this soon tails-off into general business use.' Nevertheless, press reports continue to embarrass IBM by highlighting the number and frequency of visits to the sites of Penthouse and Playboy and the like. It looks as if it could be some time before the theory and practice coincide.