There's one area of Internet access control that fails to arouse the ire of even the most hard-core opponents of censorship: corporate blocking and monitoring.
Perhaps the most recent development in a series of technologies designed to limit Internet access, corporate blocking debuted in 1995 and is now a thriving industry, according to Alan Kosow, account development manager of Microsystems, makers of Cyber Patrol Corporate.
"Companies can protect themselves from possible sexual harassment suits using this service. With Internet blocking, there's no chance an employee could see sexually explicit material displayed on a coworker's screen and sue," said Kosow. "Also, it's a way to avoid losing money due to employees wasting time surfing the Web."
When an employee keys in a URL related to areas such as sports, pornography, online merchandising, job searching, gambling, games or humor, a message saying access is disallowed pops up, says Kosow.
"This kind of service didn't exist two years ago," said Kosow, "because there wasn't any reason for it. The companies didn't have access, or there wasn't much for folks to look at if they did. In the last couple of years there's been an explosion of activity."
About 7 to fifteen companies currently offer this service to hundreds of clients worldwide in banking, technology, manufacturing and other industries. Customers using blocking systems include Boeing and the Marriott Corporation.
For mega-companies such as these, the service comes relatively cheap, according to Christopher McSorley, a senior account manager at Webtrack, a corporate blocking/monitoring service that debuted in June 1995. Webtrack, which has over 100 clients, charges $7,000 for an unlimited license, scaling down to $3,000 for a 50-user limit, and also offering school discounts, said McSorley.
McSorley says his company's blocking device runs on the network server rather than on individual computers and is difficult to hack.
"The way Webtrack is configured, users' other access routes to FTP, HTTP and Gopher and blocked. They must access the Internet through Webtrack, so it's hard for a user to alter," said McSorley. Some, but not all, corporate blocking/monitoring services operate on similar principles, McSorley said. Companies access Webtrack by downloading it from the Internet after signing a contract with the company.
Even advocates of online freedom and employee rights seem to accept the idea of corporate Internet blocking.
"Employees have no right to use company equipment on company time to access Sportzone or the Playboy pages," posted Andrew J. Dhuey, an attorney and frequent participant in the legal conference of the Well, a San Francisco-based BBS, when the question of corporate blocking was raised in the conference.
"This (corporate blocking) is no different from blocking access to 976 dial-a-porn while at work," posted Legal Conference Cohost Lee Tien in the same conference. "I think monitoring is different from blocking."
With corporate Internet monitoring, whenever an employee visits a Website while at work, this information is recorded. Hence, an employer can monitor which sites each employee visits and how many times the employee visits them in a given time span, typically a month or a week.
The two services generally come as a package, according to McSorley of Webtrack. "The URL of every site visited is available to be monitored by the authorized person in the company," said McSorley.
Not surprisingly, representatives of companies offering blocking/monitoring services defend monitoring. "It's no more or less intrusive than keeping track of an employee's phone calls, and no more or less reasonable," said Kosow.
What is surprising is that members of civil liberties groups don't seem to disagree. "I don't know if there's a reasonable expectation of privacy when the equipment and time belong to the company where an employee is working," said Andy Kayton, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"This is a problem to be worked out between employee and employer," said Marshall Sutherland, treasurer of the Alachua County Libertarian Party, in an e-mail response to questions about Internet monitoring.
"In most cases, the employer owns the equipment, is paying for the Internet access and is probably paying the employee while the employee is accessing the Internet. From that perspective, I think the employer should be able to exercise whatever control deemed necessary," Sutherland said.
The consensus seems to be that as long as the company's monitoring policies are documented, made clear to employees and not administered unjustly, such policies are acceptable.
"Companies should have a policy in place all employees are aware of. If an employee is in trouble for visiting a given site too often, a warning should be given before dismissing the employee. Due process should be observed," said Rebecca Locketz, Field Coordinator for the ACLU task force on civil liberties in the workplace.
Also, Locketz said, "The policy should be evenhandedly enforced - both lower-level employees and executives should be subject to the same monitoring procedures."
Sutherland agrees with many of Locketz' points. "Before any Internet monitoring policy takes effect, it should be published to the employees so that the employees can complain, protest, threaten to quit, or take whatever other action they think is necessary to get the policy changed.
"If the policy takes effect, it should be made an officially documented policy, along with all other official policies, so that new (or potential) employees are aware of it," Sutherland said.
These attitudes are typical of those expressed by most sources consulted on the subject, including other attorneys and representatives of civil rights groups. Most seem to feel corporate Internet monitoring is an acceptable, if not necessary, evil as long as policies are made clear to employees, due process is observed in disciplinary proceedings and enforcement is even-handed.
Dissenters seem to be mostly individuals who fiercely support individual rights and endorse the frontier mentality of the Net.
One such dissenter is Steve Mizrach, Alachua Freenet helpdesk staffer, former University of Florida Anthropology Department Webmaster and co-editor of an independent film on workplace surveillance released in December 1996.
"I think it's (monitoring) incredibly unnecessary and intrusive," said Mizrach in an e-mail message in response to a question about workplace Internet monitoring.
"Ultimately, I have always felt I'm most productive when Big Brother isn't looking over my shoulder, and someday companies may learn this as well. As long as you finish you work in a way that shows quality in a timely manner, why do you have to be monitored along the way? Who cares if you slack off and play Doom for an hour or two if you can finish an assignment in less time than the guy next to you?"
While Mizrach strongly opposes corporate monitoring, his views on blocking are not too different from the majority. "I'm hesitant to endorse Internet blocking ... on the other hand, I'm not sure anything productive was accomplished by the 12,000 hits by Compaq employees to the Penthouse site during work hours, either. So it's a tough issue. Site blocking I could support; entire Net blocking seems to be a bit drastic," said Mizrach.
Mizrach's comments support the consensus of opinion regarding corporate Internet blocking and monitoring. "If you go to Sportzone 117 times a day, it's not helping you do your job. It's legitimate to block employees from visiting sites if they have no work-related reason to visit them," Locketz said.
As Locketz said, "It's not unreasonable to keep track of what sites employees are visiting, as long as the employees know they are being monitored. They're using company equipment on company time; it's understandable that the company would want to remain aware of what its employees are doing."
I support freedom of speech on the Internet. If you would like more information on the issue of censorship on the Internet, these sites may be of interest to you:
The Net Censorship Dilemma: Liberty or Tyranny
Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS)
This document was created by Janis Mara. All illustrations are by Terry Colon courtesy of www.suck.com. Most recent update: January 1997. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to e-mail Janis Mara.