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While there is no question about the benefits of Internet in the workplace, easy access at work to the same tools and websites employees routinely access on their own computers at home has given rise to a host of challenging employment issues.

In the early days of the Internet, employers worried mainly about employees accessing illegal or inappropriate websites. With the proliferation of activities available at the click of a button – online shopping; trip planning; paying bills; watching YouTube clips; and reading or watching news and sporting events; to name just a few – there are new concerns.

The amount of time being ‘lost’ to employers because of employees’ personal Internet time is a real and, as it turns out, measurable problem. Surveys routinely estimate the number of hours ‘wasted’ annually by employees using the Internet for personal use to be in the billions.

Employees visiting Internet sites and downloading, viewing and sharing large audio and video files increase bandwidth traffic on an employer’s system; straining capacity and necessitating upgrades. These activities can also expose an employer’s system to viruses that can disable it.

Having a clear and fair computer and Internet use policy can help employers and employees understand what types of personal use will and will not be acceptable.

First, the policy should state that the employer owns the computer resources and that these resources are to be used predominantly for the employer’s business purposes. Most employers would agree however, that a complete ban on personal Internet use is both unrealistic and unworkable. A reasonable amount of personal Internet use may, in fact, help employees be more productive, allowing them to juggle personal and work obligations more effectively. As more and more employees regularly check their work e-mail and complete assignments in non-working hours, the old distinction between work and personal time is blurring.

The question then becomes; what is reasonable personal use and what is not? What activities (by employees and employers) are acceptable?

Employees have some limited rights to privacy in the workplace. However, if the employer’s policy expressly states that it may monitor all documents or communications created, sent or received by an employee on the employer’s computer network to ensure integrity of the system and compliance with the policy, then the employee cannot assume that his or her online activities and personal e-mail communications will remain private.

Personal use of the Internet may be restricted to ‘incidental and occasional’ personal use, or to certain times, such as lunch or breaks. Employees can also be prohibited from using the employer’s Internet or e-mail for commercial purposes unrelated to the employer’s business.

Another basic requirement is that all personal use must be legal and must not violate intellectual property laws. Employers may choose to block access to certain websites or prohibit employees from visiting Facebook and similar sites using the employer’s computer network.

Finally, a key element of any policy will be a warning of the consequences of violating the policy (e.g., suspension of personal Internet use privileges or other disciplinary action, including termination).

The most important aspect of a good personal Internet use policy is the clarity it brings regarding boundaries and expectations. With increasing reliance on online resources, it is important for employers to periodically review their policies to maintain a proper balance between the two.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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