Create an Internet-Use Policy To Protect Your Business

The Internet has become an essential tool for almost every business. But used improperly, it can significantly cut employee productivity as well as present security and legal risks.

Installing technology to block some applications and filter out objectionable websites can help, but your company should also have a written policy outlining acceptable and unacceptable staff uses of the Internet.

When considering such a policy, address at least five issues:

1. Productivity - Clearly state whether employees are allowed to use the Internet for personal use. You might allow them to, say, check email or log in to certain sites, during breaks or at lunchtime. Of course, during working hours, time spent surfing the Internet, emailing and instant messaging, playing games or shopping can significantly lower productivity, costing your business time and money. In fact, it’s long been estimated that Internet misuse in the workplace costs American companies billions annually in lost productivity.

2. Security - Generally, companies don’t allow employees to download offensive or sexually explicit content, engage in threatening or violent online behavior, take part in illegal activities, or engage in commercial endeavors unrelated to your own business. File sharing and online chatting is also often banned because those activities open a data "tunnel" between two or more computers that can be used to gain access to your network. Some of this malicious programming can at least use up memory and slow down your network. At worst, it can expose sensitive information to hackers and enable malicious parties to ruin or delete your data.

3. Resource Consumption - File sharing networks consume costly bandwidth when downloading or uploading files -- especially if multiple employees are using them often. What’s worse, hackers use shareable files to hide malware that can let them get into your network and stay there, stealing information at-will and planting viruses that can damage or destroy data.

4. Legal Liability - Unrestricted access to the Internet can leave your business open to potential lawsuits. If, say, an employee deliberately or inadvertently reaches an objectionable website and another employee sees it, your business could be liable for charges of sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment. In addition, downloading copyrighted material, such as movies, is illegal and could leave your company vulnerable to fines, legal costs and attorneys’ fees. Under U.S. copyright law, your business could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for each violation, plus punitive damages and possible imprisonment for certain parties involved.

5. Negative Publicity - The potentially damaging publicity that could result from an employee lawsuit or criminal charges related to an employee’s online activities is bad enough. But there’s also the concern of posting or forwarding inappropriate material through email to persons outside the company. How often do you receive an e-mail joke with a great number of addressees? What if objectionable content is sent by one of your staff members (especially from a work e-mail address) to one of your clients or business partners? And if the general public learns that your network has been hacked and sensitive customer data exposed, the fallout could take weeks or months to fix ... all while your bottom line suffers.

The Internet is a valuable tool in the workplace, but it does present risks. Being clear with staff about how they can and can’t use the Internet will help reduce your company’s risk of suffering legal woes or encountering a major technological disaster. It just makes good business sense.