Employee Internet Usage
Your business could be liable if employees misuse the Internet. Here are some tips on what to look out for.
Tangled Up In The Web
With their speed, convenience and efficiency, the Internet and e-mail have become essential tools for most businesses. But inappropriate use of a company's Internet and e-mail systems can have serious implications and consequences. An employee who abuses these tools may place his position with the company in jeopardy. In addition, the employer may be forced to take legal responsibility for the misconduct of their employee. While a new world of information and business opportunities is available through the Internet, so too is an entirely new world of legal dangers.
Copyright Infringement - The very nature and speed of the Web encourages copying and passing along of information and data. Sometimes nothing seems to heighten morale around the office like a good Dilbert-ism liberally circulated through the company's e-mail system. But copying and distributing someone else's works without their consent could constitute copyright infringement.
Sexual Harassment, Discrimination - Even one off-color joke sent through the company's e-mail system could help constitute proof of a "hostile working environment." Such evidence could then be used to bolster potential sexual harassment or discrimination complaints.
Trade Secret Disclosure - While most employers hope that their employees are not sending their company secrets to competitors, it is a real danger. Suspicion of an information leak could be sufficient grounds to monitor outgoing e-mails.
Securities Law Violations - It's the Wild Wild Web when it comes to spreading (usually mis-) information about a company with the goal of moving the stock price up or down. An employee of a company whose stock is publicly traded posted false information on an Internet bulletin board regarding the company's stock. Anyone with visions of riches should be warned: when such an occurrence of stock manipulation occurs, the company could potentially be held liable for the violation.
Defamation/Cyber Libel - Workplace e-mail addresses usually contain an easily identifiable company name. When an employee sends an e-mail, the recipient of the message may infer that the company endorses the material contained within the e-mail. Because the boundaries between opinion and defamation or libel are confusingly thin, it's prudent to discourage personal use of the company's domain name by employees. Even employee participation in a chat room or newsgroup using the employer's domain name could present danger of litigation.
There are ways companies can help protect themselves from potential liability resulting from employee misuse of the Internet and e-mail. One recourse is to institute an employee e-mail/Internet policy, which outlines appropriate and inappropriate usage of the company's resources. Such a policy shouldn't be viewed as a panacea that completely shields a company from legal responsibility. But it would show a court that preventative action was taken to limit inappropriate use of the company's Internet and e-mail system.
Technology exists today that can limit employees' access to inappropriate Web pages. But Internet filters and other software that can monitor employee usage of the Internet and e-mail should be used with caution. A company should have significant reason to institute such measures because intrusion of employee privacy may violate federal wiretapping laws.
Additionally, let employees know the consequences of Internet misuse, including the dangers the company faces if litigation develops due to an employee indiscretion. Employees need to be educated about copyright, libel and securities laws and the dangers posed by inappropriate use of company e-mail and Internet systems.