Could employers ban personal email?

BCC says that private email at work may become a thing of the past, thanks to the Data Protection Commission

The British Chamber of Commerce has warned that employers may ban workers from sending personal emails to avoid legal liability, in light of a draft code of practice from the Data Protection Commission.

The warning comes shortly after a tribunal ruling Monday, which upheld a company's decision to sack two employees for wasting resources by distributing joke emails. The BCC says that companies could resort to banning all personal email use altogether.

"This comes amid growing confusion for employers," says a BCC spokesman. "There have been suggestions that [companies] may stop workers sending personal email. There is the possibility that this could happen if the code comes in as it stands."

The current legal situation is unclear. The Commission's draft code recommends restrictions on workplace surveillance despite the broad powers granted by the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Breaking the code, which will come into force Easter 2001, could result in hefty fines for companies.

The Commission, however, argues there is no contradiction between its draft code and the RIP Act. While the Act sets out an employer's legal right to monitor, says a spokesman, the code counters by protecting an individual's privacy.

"[Employers] should look at the real risks and introduce solutions that are least intrusive," he says.

Robin Bynoe, an Internet specialist at law firm Charles Russell, says that employers will need to be aware of both the Act and the code. "Both were prepared without either side knowing what the other was doing. It's going to be difficult," he says.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC), which represents the interests of employees, has also spotted the potential pothole and has issued a set of guidelines for businesses: Surveillance at Work: Sensible Solutions.

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