The internet has a prominent position in the vast majority of work places. With such widespread use it is inevitable that a certain level of misuse will occur. It is therefore important that employers set out an office policy on the use of the internet and that employees are aware of the level and the type of use of the internet that is permitted.
One of the more contentious issues in this area is that of employees using company time and resources to download images from pornographic sites. Some content is illegal and under the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act – anyone who knowingly possesses child pornography is guilty of an offence. However, receiving an email attachment which contains child pornography is not an offence provided that the recipient did not receive such material knowingly.
It is vital that employers put in place a strict policy prohibiting the accessing or downloading of pornographic material in the workplace. A failure to do this could leave them open to prosecution. It should also be noted by employers that if a workplace internet policy does not specifically state that downloading or distributing adult pornography constitutes gross misconduct, then summarily dismissing an employee who is shown to have engaged in such activity may leave the employer open to an action for unfair dismissal.
Another important issue relating to the use of the internet in the office is the question of whether an employer can access and read staff e-mails. The Data Protection Commissioner has stated that in order to protect their business, reputation, resources and equipment, employers may wish to monitor staff's use of e-mail and the internet. However, employers should be aware that the collection, use or storage of information about employees and the monitoring of their e-mail or internet access involved the processing of personal data and thus comes under data protection law.
Under this legislation, employees must be informed of the existence of the surveillance. Furthermore, any monitoring must be a proportionate response by an employer to the risk he or she faces, taking into account the legitimate privacy and other interests of employees.
It is recommended that if employers intend to monitor web access by employees, they should inform the employees of this policy and the basis on which their web access records will be accessed and by whom. It is essential that such policies are implemented in the workplace as an activity engaged by an employee on-line has the potential to negatively impact on the company.