|Written by Joe RudichHits : 912|
|Thursday, 31 December 1998 19:00|
One day last summer, while on my lunch hour (honest!), I aimed my Web browser at an entertainment site to obtain movie listings and showtimes for the weekend. I clicked on a link that promised scoops on the fall TV schedule, but instead of reading about the cast of "Deep Space Nine," I saw a threatening message on my screen:
"You have accessed a blocked site. WebSnoop (not the actual name of the software) has determined that this site contains inappropriate content. Your supervisor will be notified by e-mail." I forwarded the offending address, and a query, to the Internet Security department before it added a morality violation to my employment record. I was told that the page was blocked because "Pamela Anderson Lee is mentioned within it because she is in a new show this fall, and our censoring program blocks all Web sites containing her name."
I managed to avoid reprimand, but when the Starr Report was published all over the Web in September, more of my coworkers encountered the "blocked site" message. Virtually anyone who accessed the Web through a censored connection found not only the Starr Report blocked, but also any site containing excerpts from it--or even references to it. News and newspaper Web sites were unavailable, as were any sites containing political discussion.
My intent is not to debate the pros and cons of Web site filtering; this newest form of censorship inevitably is prone to the same failings as any other attempt to control information. There is no universal barometer of morality, so entrusting censorship to anyone will anger some of the people being "protected." That general argument already has been explored many times in the past, unfortunately.
In fact, I want to explore just why this issue arose for me or any of my coworkers trying to read online newspapers. Why were we trying to access Web sites that were not directly related to our jobs, even though we were using computers owned by our employer? Why do so many corporations feel the need to use some type of program restricting employee access to certain Web sites?
Once, computers were also for professional use only: No one had to worry about mainframe operators of the 1970s surfing to adult Web sites. The personal computer, on the other hand, is a personal tool. Users become customize the user interface, pointing device, keyboard and anything else they can alter. Productivity grows when people discover new ways to use their PCs, and the number of uses is almost limitless.
With a connection to the Web, a PC can be useful for any activity, both professional and personal. Like many employers, mine provides Internet access to all employees, and formally permits personal use during breaks and after business hours-provided that use fits meets the appropriateness criteria of its censoring service.
Most employees have accepted these restrictions, because they still consider the PC a tool for work, even though they may own one for the use of themselves or their children. If the computer actually is the most popular tool for information exchange, as seems increasingly apparent, why is it treated so unlike similar devices? A PC is more like a telephone than a bulldozer-yet few employers try to restrict the type of information their employees exchange by telephone. Nor would any company try to control the type of books or magazines their workers read at lunch. Computers have even greater potential to enrich (and integrate) most aspects of people's lives, but many employees are prevented from installing software on the devices they use all day. Of course, there is one factor that lets employers exert such control over computer use: They pay for the PCs in question, a not-insignificant investment.
Many management consultants and employment advisors now recommend that workers self-manage their careers and consider themselves consultants, even when employed full-time by one corporation. As this trend continues and converges with increasingly affordable PCs, most professionals will buy not only their own briefcases and cellular phones, but also their own computers. Only an owner, not just a user, of a computer can determine his or her own idea of appropriate use.