There have been several articles recently about companies that block employees from accessing certain Internet sites or applications at work. Examples range from the obvious – porn – to the less so – instant messaging applications. The Los Angeles Times apparently prevents its workers from going to adult content / sex sites, as well as sites that supply tools for circumventing filters. (No word on whether the Times blocks outside proxy servers and FTP servers as well, which it would need to do in order to create a reasonably effective filtering system.)
The justifications put forth for corporate filtering include both plausible and risible reasons. It’s quite reasonable to worry about employees downloading the Jessica Simpson screensaver and other malware, or about creating a hostile work environment when people check out the latest in naked celebrity photos. But worrying that employees are wasting time by checking out eBay or chatting via IM presumes that Internet distractions are additive, not displacing – we’ll all spend the same amount of time in water cooler conversations and playing Solitaire that we did before the Net, and so reading Television Without Pity makes the situation worse rather than just replacing lower-tech time-wasters. I’m skeptical both on empirical grounds and based on the underlying managerial attitude: we can’t measure accurately how well employees perform tasks, and we don’t trust them to do so, hence we’ll block stuff we believe is distracting.
I’d argue for an alternative: accountability. Tell employees when they first join that Web surfing is monitored. Then analyze your firewall or proxy server’s logs to find out who’s looking at naughty sites, or who is spending all of their time checking out Bonaire hotels on tripadvisor.com. Have a conversation with those people about work / leisure balance. This approach respects your people by trusting that they’ll focus on tasks rather than temptations, reduces the overhead for your IT staff (it’s easier to run scripts to find playboy.com than to update constantly a block list), and also quietly checks to prevent abuses. As President Ronald Reagan suggested, “Trust, but verify.”