Internet Use Policy

By Lasa Information Systems Team

We’ve had lots of calls from organisations looking for help in developing policy for internet use by staff. We don’t have a standard policy, but here are a few pointers to some of the main issues.
 
A lot will depend on the existing culture of an organisation and there will be big differences between policies of organisations which place a high degree of autonomy and trust in their staff and those which have a very regulatory atmosphere. The use of e-mail and the Web, chat rooms and instant messaging are closely related, but there are some differences so let's look at them in turn.
 

Email

A good starting point is the existing policy on telephone usage.
 
Many organisations accept that staff should be able to make local calls - things like calls to partners, making appointments, arranging childcare etc. assuming these are short and local – e.g. long conversations with friends in Australia are out.
 
The use of email to send personal messages can be treated in the same way. The cost to the company if they have broadband or a fixed fee dial up account will be zero. So it seems reasonable to allow staff to use the system to send personal emails.
 
Some companies are concerned that views expressed in emails may be seen as company policy and attach rather tedious and ridiculous disclaimers to all emails.  Note that these disclaimers are rarely grounded in law, and in some cases may be counter productive - see Stupid Email Disclaimers for discussion of this, and an amusing library of disclaimers.
 
Most companies will allow the use of email for personal messages but come down very heavily on staff using company email systems to send or receive certain types of material – pornography or racist material for example. A search of the internet will provide numerous examples.
 
Many companies routinely monitor their staff’s use of email and other social networking tools. 
This highlights an associated privacy issue.
 
The knowledge that emails are monitored will act as a constraint on staff’s use of email, but there should be clarity on what company practice is in this regard: what monitoring is done, for what purpose, what information may be disclosed.
 
Use of web based email services such as Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail may be preferable if staff wish to send personal emails. This also means that an organisation's security is maintained with less chance of a virus infection.
 

Web use

The main issue with the use of the Web probably isn’t the cost of the call but the potential waste of staff time.
 
There are also potential legal issues, for example if staff download copyrighted music or software through file sharing networks your organisation may be liable.  Another issue is that downloading large files on a broadband connection shared across your organisation slows the net down for everyone else.
 
Using the Web to look up a train time or check out a phone number may be seen as just fine, providing it doesn’t take long, but longer activities like buying a book or finding a cheap flight should be done in a lunch break or after work if your organisation's policy allows this.
 
Illegal downloading of copyrighted files could potentially expose the organisation to prosecution. In addition to this, file sharing networks can be a good way of picking up viruses!
 
Some companies bar the use of the Web for personal use completely, others will trust staff to act responsibly but deal harshly with staff viewing distasteful sites. There are some difficult issues here. Who decides what is acceptable? What about legitimate research? Again, the knowledge that everything they do may be monitored by their organisation can be a significant constraint on staff’s use of the Web. Most people are now aware that everything they do on the Web is logged in several places on their PC as well as on the network server. Any policy on staff’s use of the Web should make clear what monitoring is being done, and if it is felt necessary to proscribe some use of the Web then boundaries need to be clearly spelled out.
 

Social Networking

Social Networking tools like Facebook and Twitter allow communities of people with similar interests, but who are usually in different locations to share and communicate online. These don't usually require particular software other than a web browser such as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox to be installed on the user's machine.
 
Users need to register to use social networking tools and log in with a user name and a password. Once users log in they can post comment or answer the question ‘What are you doing now?’. Other users can respond to messages.
 
Whilst social networking can be a legitimate way of communicating with colleagues, they can also be abused.
 
The main issue in organisations is again likely to be the potential waste of time if staff are using the them for non-work related interaction during work time.
 

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging allows people to see whether a chosen friend or work colleague is on the Internet and send them real time messages. It can be a legitimate, useful and cheap communication tool - especially when trying to stay in contact with colleagues in different locations.
 
Instant messaging can also enable several people in different locations to chat to each other simultaneously. In order for instant messaging to work, each user must have a messaging client  installed on their machine, be connected to the Internet, and be signed up to a service such as AOL, Hotmail/MSN Messenger, Yahoo etc. Each of these online service providers has their own messaging software. Software is also available that allows you to connect to several networks (e.g. Trillian), thereby allowing you to connect with users on all of these IM networks without having to install each network's IM software separately.
 
As with telephone calls, email, Web and social networking usage, one of the main issues with instant messaging is likely to be the potential waste of staff time.
 
About the author
 
Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST is maintains the knowledgebase.
 
Published: 15th February 2000 Reviewed: 26th April 2006
 
Copyright © 2000 Lasa Information Systems Team

 

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Provided to Infoxchange and reviewed under agreement with LASA, April 2011