The Internet has become a pervasive presence in the American workplace. Two-thirds of employees in medium and large companies in the United States now have Internet access, compared with fifteen percent only two years ago, according to a sampling of 500 companies surveyed by the IntelliQuest Corporation. (IntelliQuest)
Workers with Web access typically spend five to ten hours per week sending personal e-mail or searching for information not specifically related to their jobs. Popular entertainment sites, such as ESPN's Sport Zone, where visitors can check sport scores, and POGO where they can play games sustain heavy traffic during the work day. As everything from CD's to cars go on sale over the Web, some employees are also spending more time shopping on line.
The Internet offers many new opportunities for companies. Companies using the Internet can reduce operating costs, because human tasks can be automated, data can be transferred more efficiently, and the company needs less real estate and inventory. In addition, companies using the Internet can monitor their competition, quickly retrieve information, and facilitate communication with employees and customers. The establishment of a site on the World Wide Web enables companies to operate on a larger scale, and easily expand product lines.
However, in addition to using the Internet, especially the World Wide Web and e-mail for work-related purposes, employees are also using the Internet for personal use, whether for sending personal e-mail messages, playing games, downloading pornography, ordering goods online, checking stock prices, or gambling. Accordingly, many issues have come to light involving employee e-mail and Internet use. Employers have to question how much, if any, personal use of the Internet and e-mail to permit in the workplace. Employers are also grappling with the question of whether to monitor Internet use and whether to block access to certain Internet sites. According to recent surveys, more than one-third of employers monitor their employees' e-mail and Internet use. (Conti) It is notable, that in a 1997 PC World survey, nearly two-thirds of the employees who responded said that their employer has the right to monitor their workplace Internet use as long as they are previously informed of the monitoring. (Martin)
This issue may arise when the employee's Internet use affects the reputation of the employer, for example, where an employee's personal web site includes an embarrassing reference to the employer. This has become increasingly popular with the advent of MySpace. Some employers routinely check MySpace for employee websites to see if any negative information has been written about them by their employees.
As e-mail and Internet use increases in the workplace, there are likely to be many Internet-related disputes, including those concerning employment relations, privacy, and freedom of speech, intellectual property, and record-keeping issues. Many workplace disputes involving the Internet will be resolved according to traditional labor and employment law. However, because of uncertainties, as well as differing opinions, regarding appropriate uses of the Internet in the workplace, the Internet has intensified workplace disputes. (SHRM) Consequently, the resolution of Internet-related disputes will often require the application of case law and statutes which specifically address electronic issues.
"Oops! I haven't beaten anyone so bad in a long time." [E-mail message sent by Los Angeles police officer regarding the 1991 Rodney King case] (Conti) The problems underlying e-mail use are numerous. For example, the medium is treated so informally that people tend to write e-mail messages without much thought. As indicated by one commentator: "'In the litigation environment, it is often electronic mail that contains the most damning admissions." (Conti) In e-mail, people don't take the care they would,...