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Is Internet filtering a necessary evil?

Where do you draw the line at your company between acceptable and unacceptable personal Internet usage? Is Internet filtering a necessary evil? by James Mathewson

The other day, I had CU Editor at Large Nelson King over to my bar for a couple of cold ones. We chatted about the industry and how our jobs have changed recently as a result of belt tightening in the tech-publishing sector. For both of us, the single biggest difference in the way we conduct our business has to do with e-mail. Whereas I used to be somewhat compulsive about managing and responding to e-mail, I now must delete about two-thirds of it outright. I just don’t have the time to open, read, and sort e-mail, even from colleagues. And some of the stuff I don’t open languishes in my inbox for weeks, at which point it would be embarrassing to respond to it. Nelson said he has adopted similar tactics and he thinks my response to the growing flood of correspondence is quite common, even outside of tech publishing.

In light of this, it’s no surprise that 70 percent of IT managers surveyed recently by Quick Take say Internet filtering should be standard operating procedure for IT managers. I find the survey to jibe with my own anecdotal evidence. IT managers I’ve talked to are looking for ways to improve the performance of their company’s Internet service, and this includes filtering e-mail for spam, building FTP servers to reduce attachment burdens, and placing strict limits on personal Internet usage. One of the unintended consequences of Outlook/Exchange and similar client/server solutions is the fact that all e-mail is stored on the server’s hard drive. In shops that use these solutions (the overwhelming majority), the biggest drain in Internet performance is clogged hard drives on the e-mail server. Filtering is one of the most effective ways to improve performance–for both the server and for the employees who are otherwise hugely burdened by spam.

The survey was commissioned by SurfControl, so, naturally, the supporting write-up talked more about draconian efforts to prevent users from accessing Web sites that don’t relate to their jobs. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask IT managers whether monitoring employee surfing habits and notifying managers about strict violations transfers the burdens from the Internet connection to its network administrators, but I suspect it does. The line between filtering enough to improve server performance and acting like the IT KGB is not easily drawn.

A secondary consequence of being hard-nosed about personal Web surfing is high turnover. Employees like to be able to take breaks to check out their favorite news sites and follow their sports teams. Most people can balance their job duties and occasional personal interests. Blocking this activity is a hardship few are comfortable with. And losing good people seems a high price to pay to ensure 100 percent compliance. Also blocking outgoing personal e-mail seems unnecessarily burdensome to employees. Even the definition of personal e-mail can be tricky. Nelson, for example, is one of my best friends, but also is an integral part of our business.

In light of these issue, I would like to conduct my own informal survey of our newsletter readers, many of whom are network administrators faced with tough decisions about e-mail and Web filtering. Where do you draw the line at your company between acceptable and unacceptable personal Internet usage? Who draws this line–IT or corporate management? How do strict Internet filtering policies affect IT’s relationship to users and employee retention? All responses will be held in strict confidence. I just want to get a more accurate sense of the phenomenon so that we can cover it further in a future feature.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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