In the beginning, there was the telephone. David Ash, COO of Sam Ash Music, elaborates, "Not long ago, we found hours of (telephone) time being used for a psychic hotline, when our people should have been servicing customers and getting their work done." Sam Ash Music, a company with twelve hundred employees and 30 musical instrument megastores, took care of its phone problem by blocking access to psychic hotline-type calling.
But in the 21st century, companies are discovering a new temptation for employees in the form of the Internet. David Ash explains, "The Web has a lot of entertainment and a lot of things that are not part of business that can be very distracting to our staff."
To be clear, Chief Operating Officer David Ash doesn't believe his employees are wasting time on the Net. But the potential for business to lose time and money is huge. Says Harold Kester, Chief Technical Officer of Websense, a company that makes Internet filtering software, "To give you an example of the cyberslacking problem, there are 63 million employees using the Internet in business in the United States today. If one hour per week is wasted, that's a 64 billon dollar productivity problem."
Problems involving the Internet's effect on the workplace include cyberslacking, and visits to inappropriate Web sites involving, for example, pornography or race hate, which could create what's considered a "hostile" work environment. Then there's the impact to the company's connection to the Internet. All that heavy Web use requires more bandwidth, which companies ultimately must finance. Explains Kester, "That is people using the Web to download movies, for example, or having Internet radio or Internet TV on their desktop."
Websense, and other content filtering software companies, help companies like Sam Ash both to block (or limit) employee access to some sites and to monitor their overall use of the Internet. Says Kester, pointing to his computer screen, "Here we have all the categories that are available in Websense -- again there's about 78 different categories overall."
Of course, it's not just cyber-shopping and movie watching Sam Ash wants to limit. The company has recently installed a program called Mimesweeper to prevent misuse of e-mail. Rob Cryan, an engineer for Baltimore Technologies, explains, "Mimesweeper sits in between your internal mail systems and the greater Internet. And what it does is it filters messages and their attachments as they go in or out of the company."
Once Mimesweeper and programs like it are set up with key filtering words, they can stop viruses or offensive messages in their tracks. Says Cryan, "These are dirty messages that have triggered an alert. They are in quarantine now. I have to decide, as the adminstator, what to do with those."
Sam Ash is certianly not isolated in its concern. According to the American Mangement Association, nearly 63 percent of major U.S. companies monitor workers' Internet connections -- that's up from 54 percent a year ago. 40 percent of companies also block Internet connections to unauthorized or inappropriate sites, and 47 percent store and review employee e-mail.
Forrester Research analyst Frank Prince explains that the rise began several years ago: "Once you caught on to the idea that there was some risk in the Internet, then businesses had a path to see, 'Oh, yes, there may be risk of various different kinds that we as companies have relative to the internet.'"
Between boosting productivity and protecting themselves legally, Prince believes every Fortune 2500 company will eventually pay companies like Websense for such software. "We believe that the growth over the next three to four years will be from the 100 million range that we're seeing in 2000 to maybe 500 million in 2004," Prince explained.
But with the growth has come controversy. The same software that limits access to pornography or protects computers from viruses could give the boss unprecedented access to an employee's personal life. According to Lewis Maltby, Director of the non-profit National Work Rights Institute, "It's not just some individual in the I.T. department or the H.R. department that's going to know your personal secrets. The next thing you know, everyone in the company knows your marriage is on the rocks, or they're talking about that sex e-mail you sent your husband or wife yesterday at work, and do you really want to have to go to work every day with all your co-workers knowing about the state of your marriage, and your financial conditions?"
But David Ash isn't interested in who's looking at what Web site and why: "My hope is that I didn't have a problem before I put Websense in, so I don't really expect to see a change in productivity at this point. I put it in more as a vaccine, a preventive measure, rather than because I was having a problem with it."