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Friday, 15 December, 2000, 15:25 GMT
Press send to censor
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Think before you send that message
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

A majority of companies will soon be monitoring employee e-mails in a bid to stop their reputation being damaged by inappropriate messages.

London law firm Norton Rose has been embarrassed by a lewd message sent by one of its workers that has circulated around the world.

The firm is now disciplining the employees who first forwarded the message to their friends.

Experts say that people, while at work, should not do anything online that they would not do offline.

Legal and lewd

Over the last week, Norton Rose has been trying to contain the damage done by a lewd e-mail apparently written by one of its employees who forwarded it to a few friends.


Companies are usually surprised at how much misuse of the internet goes on

Geoff Haggart, Websense

Soon the explicit e-mail message was circulating around the internet, and some estimate almost 1 million people have seen it.

Now, Norton Rose has started disciplinary proceedings against the five employees involved, saying they contravened its clear policies on the abuse of e-mail.

For some time, many companies have been monitoring messages and net surfing to ensure that employees are not wasting time on personal messages or errands, and are doing nothing that could embarrassing.

"Filtering is about protecting businesses from two things," said Martyn Richards, UK managing director of filtering firm Tumbleweed, "bad things from the outside getting in and bad things from the inside getting out."

Research firm IDC estimates that 17% of the 1000 biggest firms in the US have filtering systems in place now but it expects this to grow to 80% by the end of 2001

Rights and responsibilities

In October, the UK Government unveiled guidelines for companies wishing to look over the electronic shoulders of staff that tried to strike a balance between the responsibilities people have as employees and their rights as individuals.

Last month, the British Chambers of Commerce warned that some companies may ban all personal use of e-mail as the numbers of people sacked for abuse of e-mail or net surfing.

Mobile phone firm Orange and telecommunications company Cable and Wireless have both sacked staff for looking at and downloading porn while they work.

Mr Richards said growing numbers of companies were installing filtering systems. But he said that they had to go hand in hand with an employee education program to let workers know what they could and could not do.

Word games

Most filtering systems work by looking for key, usually rude, words in e-mails, domain names and web pages. Most can even look at web-based e-mail systems run by Hotmail and Yahoo.

Typically when filtering systems are installed managers have to sit down and work out what they consider offensive and want to block. Most have no idea what staff are getting up to.

"Companies are usually surprised at how much misuse of the internet goes on," said Geoff Haggart, European managing director of filtering firm Websense. He said many employees used company computers to download porn and MP3 files because their work link to the net was so much faster than the one they had at home.

Unfortunately many filtering systems can be a bit of a blunt tool with which to screen webpages and messages because they see rude words where none really exist or are too paranoid about potentially offensive material.

The Digital Freedom Network runs an annual censorware contest which gives prizes to the least intelligent filtering software.

Recent winners included one which blocked mail from a high school because it associated the word "high" with drug abuse. Another blocked all messages from a woman called Hilary Anne because her name was run together in her e-mail address causing the computer to see "aryan" in it.

Working words

Mr Haggart said that companies must decide for themselves what they were prepared to let staff do. He said most would stop all access to porn, gambling or MP3 sites during office hours. Others would be happy to let employees book tickets or shop online during lunch hours or after work. Many companies, he said, saw web access as a perk for hard-working employees.

The onus, he added, was also on employees to avoid abusing net access and to realise that although the internet was changing working life, it brought with it the same responsibilities.

"It's unacceptable for someone to come in with a big pile of porn magazines and flick through them," he said. "So why would you let someone do the same just because they are hiding behind their computer terminal?"

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See also:

12 Dec 00 | UK
When rude is too crude
10 Jul 00 | Scotland
Porn civil servants fired
01 Sep 00 | UK
Sacked for downloading porn
25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Watching while you surf
03 May 00 | UK
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