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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Protecting privacy and monitoring e-mail
A typical e-mail disclaimer BBC
Many companies add e-mail disclaimers to messages to protect themselves
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Companies may start curbing staff surfing in the wake of Government guidelines that give them the right to spy on employees using the phone or e-mail, warn lawyers.

The guidelines try to strike a balance between the right to privacy, the occasional need for companies to get access to employees e-mail, and the demands of law enforcement agencies.

Legal experts say that it will take the courts to sort out just how the regulations apply and what freedoms they give employers.

The result of the legal action could be demands that employees only use e-mail and the internet for company business.

Balancing Acts

On Tuesday the Government released a document called Lawful Business Practice Legislation which aims to balance the claims of the controversial Regulatory of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill with the Human Rights Act and the 1997 Telecoms Data Protection Directive.

The Government introduced the RIP Bill to clarify what action law enforcement agencies can take when investigating electronic crimes.

But critics claim the bill is a snoopers charter and does little to limit the power it gives to police to tap e-mails or conduct surveillance.

The 1997 Telecoms Data Protection Directive was introduced to ensure that the privacy of conversations conducted using any telecommunications equipment remain private.

The Human Rights Act, which came into force on Monday, guarantees fundamental freedoms to citizens. One freedom it grants is the right to privacy.

To balance the claims of these acts and directives the Government produced the Lawful Business Practice Legislation that clarified what leeway companies have to monitor staff.

Company conscience

The business practice regulations give companies permission to listen to employee phone calls and open personal e-mails to help them comply with regulatory demands, stop computer viruses spreading, covering for key staff who are on holiday or to protect the reputation of the company.

Cherie Booth and Tony Blair
Two employment lawyers happy to let the courts sort out the law

But critics, such as the TUC, claim this gives businesses too much freedom to snoop and leaves decisions to the conscience of the company involved.

But as a spokeswoman for the TUC said: "Not every workplace has a good boss."

Tim Russell, an employment lawyer at legal firm Norton Rose, said legal action will be needed to define just what companies can and cannot do. He said because Tony Blair and Cherie Booth are both employment lawyers it was perhaps no surprise that the Government was happy for the courts to define the boundaries of the legislation.

The law will force companies to be more explicit about what they regard as good and bad use of phones, e-mail and net surfing said Mr Russell.

Stopping surfing

There is no doubt that many employees browse the net for personal reasons and send personal e-mail messages on company time. Many companies filter e-mail to stop offensive material being distributed or stop employees visiting websites they consider unsuitable.

In July this year a survey of Canadian workers estimated that up to 800 million work hours will be lost in Canada this year because workers are surfing for themselves on company time.

Many workers abuse systems in other ways. In September Orange sacked 45 people who had been downloading and distributing pornography on company time.

Norton Rose is currently representing some companies involved in e-mail disputes and Mr Russell said few of them have any formal policy in place or have spent any time telling employees what their obligations are.

The ultimate result of the legal action could be restrictions on what people can do with e-mail and the net.

"Companies will have to look closely at how they allow people to use e-mail," said Mr Russell, "Some might say that external e-mails can only be sent with permission."

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See also:

13 Sep 00 | Africa
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Software targets porn sneaks
10 May 00 | Talking Point
Should your e-mails be screened at work?
03 May 00 | UK
E-mail: Our right to write?
12 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Criticism of net snooping bill grows
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