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Wasting Time on the Net
By Martin Kaste
July 30, 1997

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Web browsers are fast becoming standard issue in the American office. Exact figures are hard to find, but at least one study estimates the number of workplace Internet connections has nearly tripled in the last year and a half, to 13 million. That growth doesn't come without misgivings on the part of managers, and some of them are taking a closer look at just what it is their employees are doing when they spend all those hours surfing the Web. Minnesota Public Radio's Martin Kaste reports.
SFX: Celebrity Slugfest: punching, yelping, key-clicking and office-mates cheering
Welcome to Celebrity Slugfest, one of the thousands of useful Internet sites available to America's office worker. This particular site lets you go mano-a-mano with a celebrity sparring partner - Bill Gates, for example:
SFX: Bill Gates gets knocked out
Managers have nightmares about scenes like this: companies spend thousands - maybe hundreds of thousands - hooking their employees up to the Internet, and for what? Fantasy football, joke e-mail and the ever-popular porn sites. Managers have become so worried about employees wasting time on the 'net, it's fueling a whole new software business. Phil Nieray is director of product marketing for On Technology, a Massachusetts company that sells system software to big Internet users:
They're concerned that their bandwidth is being used for inappropriate use, and they want to know what's going on.
On Technology's customers have been snapping up a new program called "On-Guard Internet Manager," which allows employers to log all the Internet traffic coming in and out of a workplace, then analyze it by type, or even scan it for tell-tale keywords such as "sex" or "monster trucks." Other, competing software products on the market allow employers to block employee access to certain sites, or even scan e-mail for bad words. But Nieray says most employers just want the ability to see what their employees are doing:
Once people know that there's a possibility that their employer can see where they're going on the Web, they tend to self-censor or self-monitor, rather than wait for their employer to find out they've been using the Web inappropriately.
One of Nieray's customers, Madison Gas & Electric, in Madison, Wisconsin, reports that's exactly what happened. Information Security Specialist Debbie Curtain says the Internet Manager has caught very few cases of abuse among the company's 400-plus employees who have Internet connections:
We probably haven't used it as much as I would have thought. But knowing that it's there, I think people are little more cautious.
But the monitoring software might be lulling managers into a false sense of security. "John X." is a twenty-something office worker for a Minneapolis-based manufacturing company. He says he gets all his work done, and often has enough time left over to spend half his workday surfing the Web. His favorite sites are newsgroups - free-form discussions of favorite hobbies or rock bands. John's company put a software block on newsgroups as non-work-related, but John easily found a way to get around it.
Management has no clue about technology, at all, really. They wouldn't know where to start if they tried to censor or control what we're doing.
Some companies try to stop Web-savvy twenty-somethings like John X by hiring other twenty-somethings to run their monitoring system. But even an experienced Webmaster like Dave Micko, who's policed the Internet connections of some of the Twin Cities largest companies, thinks monitoring is a losing battle:
Sure they can filter out a certain percentage of porn sites, for example. But new porn sites pop up on a daily basis, and they know that there are these companies trying to filter them. There are ways to get around these things, and due to the basic nature of the Internet, there's no way to filter content 100%, in a technological sense.
Micko says he's seen too many technologically-ignorant managers leap at the promise of a technological fix - something he finds ironic, and self-defeating.
They don't know how to deal with it. And a company comes along and says "I know how to do deal with it, just subscribe to my software package, and here are the categories you can subscribe to," and bang, they you are. It's almost like they're giving them a tech solution for what I would argue is a managerial problem.
Managers who do monitor their employees' use of the Internet often hesitate to act on what they find, for fear of alienating their employees. John X., for example, says he'd quit his job if management tried to ban personal use of the Internet:
It's so complicated to tell when you're working, when you're doing something personal, when something personal becomes work-related. It's all so complicated.
Given the good job market, employees like John X. can afford to demand Internet privileges, and employers are in no position to be stingy. University of Minnesota Professor Les Wanniger studies the way companies cope with new technologies, and he says employees have a habit of getting the tools they want, with or without the approval of management. He says he understands the appeal of the monitoring systems, but he says they're a dead-end:
Could I make a business out of software to monitor people. Sure. And could I sell it to lots and lots of companies? Sure. In five years from now, companies that did it will decide, well, we're smarter now.
Wanniger says sooner or later, managers will come to the same conclusion about the Internet that they did about PCs and telephones: that surveillance is costly and even counter-productive. Eventually, he says, the Internet - along with other high-tech trends, like telecommuting - will force companies to give up trying to look over employees' shoulders and evaluate their performance by tracking outcomes.