Commentary: Spies like us online

"You can hope that your staff are only surfing the Net for business use...or you can ensure it." This is the rather ominous marketing pitch from SurfControl, one of the leading purveyors of Web-filtering software for businesses.

"You can hope that your staff are only surfing the Net for business use...or you can ensure it."

That's the rather ominous marketing pitch from SurfControl, one of the leading purveyors of Web-filtering software for businesses. The SurfWatch system--and similar products from Elron Software, Websense and others--can monitor and log each Web site network users visit.

They're able to block access to specific sites a company deems inappropriate, as well as to predefined site categories. They provide sophisticated data-reporting tools that can red-flag individuals who are visiting an unusual number of nonbusiness-related Web sites.

Sound creepy? It's maybe even creepier once you realize that surveillance of employees' Internet activity is surprisingly common. According to the American Management Association, 54 percent of the 2,100 companies it surveyed last year said they monitor Internet usage in some way.

Personally, it's frightening to me to know that my company can check to see how much time and bandwidth I've spent checking on my bid for that Ricky Martin CD on eBay, and that if my company believes that's an abuse of its resources it could--within its rights, if I've been told that's an unacceptable use of the network--fire me.

But when I think about this issue from an Internet manager's viewpoint, I'm convinced that companies have the right to ensure their networks aren't being abused. Look, they're paying for the bandwidth, so they get to decide what to do with it.

The key, of course, is to prevent abuse in a way that won't cause employees to freak out. Here are some common-sense guidelines.

Develop a clear and consistent acceptable-use policy. "It's always critical to communicate with employees and explain why you're doing this," says Kelly Haggerty, vice president of product management at SurfControl. Outline the company's need to use bandwidth for business reasons and spell out the legal points, if applicable. Many Web-filtering vendors provide templates for the wording of such policies.

Don't overblock Web sites. There's nothing worse than blocking sites people need to get to for their jobs, says Jeff Smith, CEO of Cerberian, a Utah start-up that has developed a hosted Web-filtering service.

Give users a way to circumvent blocked sites. Some filtering tools allow blocked sites to be bypassed with a password.

If done properly, Web filtering should not be a Big Brother scare tactic. It's simply good business.

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