by Jeremy Malcolm, Internet lawyer
Many people I speak to are confused about their rights to use the Internet at work. They are unsure about whether they can use the Internet for private purposes, and whether their employer is allowed to monitor their use of the Internet at work.
Uncertainty about these questions is one good reason why many employers have introduced Acceptable Use Policies for their employees, which set out exactly what the rights and duties of employers and employees are in respect of Internetusage in the workplace. The Australian Privacy Commissioner has recently recommended that such a policy be adopted in every workplace where Internet access is available to staff. There are a number of good templates of such policies available on the Internet to use as a guide for those employers who don't yet have a policy in place.
If there is no policy - even a verbal one - then the provision of Internet access to employees is likely to carry with it the employer's implied permissionfor staff to make reasonable personal use of the Internet, so long as such use does not interfere with the employee's duties or expose the employer to any significant cost or risk of legal liability.
Some of the risks that an employer might be exposed to by employee use of the Internet include the risk of being found to have authorised a defamatory statement or breach of confidence in an email by an employee, and the risk of infringing sexual harrassment legislation by allowing sexual content to be displayed to other staff in the workplace environment. In addition, if a business finds itself in litigation, emails sent to and from its employees may have to be disclosed by the business and copies made available to the other party to the litigation.
If an employee abuses their Internet access in a sufficiently serious manner, this may be something for which they can be dismissed, although they would ordinarily have to be given an opportunity to respond to the allegation of misuse, and except in a very serious case they could not be dismissed immediately but would have to be warned of this risk if they continued to offend.
Employers can monitor their staff's use of the Internet, but only to a certain degree unless otherwise agreed. The office Internet gateway will probably keep logs of Web and email transactions, which may reveal the Web sites staff have visited and the people they have corresponded with by email. The employer is most likely entitled to review these logs for security and network administration purposes. If it wishes to review the logs for any other purpose,the employer ought to inform its staff that it will be doing so in order not to risk falling foul of the latest privacy legislation.