Personal Business

Getting wired at work

One U.S. woman sued her boss for letting colleagues download explicit photos from the World Wide Web

Ross Laver April 15 1996
Personal Business

Getting wired at work

One U.S. woman sued her boss for letting colleagues download explicit photos from the World Wide Web

Ross Laver April 15 1996

Getting wired at work

Personal Business

One U.S. woman sued her boss for letting colleagues download explicit photos from the World Wide Web

Ross Laver

Is the Internet the Hula-Hoop of the 1990s? Millions of people who rely on the global computer network would consider that a ridiculous question, yet earlier this year the media were full of premature obituaries for the Net and its multimedia offshoot, the World Wide Web. Across North America, journalists keen to debunk the Internet boom jumped on a report by a U.S. consulting firm, International Data Corp., which forecast that 1996 would be the year reality finally overwhelms the online hype. Most of the stories zeroed in on the study’s prediction that a fifth of the 170 Fortune 500 companies that were operating Web sites at the end of 1995 will pull the plug on those services this year or stop spending money on them.

Fascinating stuff, except that the rest of the report was anything but bearish about the Web’s future. Its author, Frank Gens, was so dismayed by the slant of the coverage that he issued a follow-up report last month in which he tried to set the record straight.

While 30 to 35 big firms will likely reduce their Web investments in 1996, Gens says, another 175 to 200 corporations are poised to launch new Web sites. In other words, “major corporate presence on the Web will jump from one-third to two-thirds of the Fortune 500.” As near-death experiences go, this one sounds pretty healthy.

The problem with the “passing fad” school of Internet coverage is that it obscures the real issues confronting companies in the on-line marketplace. A recent column (Personal Business, April 1) discussed how PCs have made it easy to waste time at work. As any Net-head worth his mouse pad can attest, giving employees online access opens up vast new opportunities for nonproductivity—from downloading porn to corresponding with an e-mail pal in Tokyo. And companies that link their networks to the outside world face a raft of potential security and legal issues.

If all this sounds esoteric, consider the challenges facing the information services manager of one of Canada’s largest banks (company policy prevents him from speaking on the record). Right now, several hun-

dred people within his organization can connect to the Internet from their desktops. Within five years, however, the bank plans to provide Net access to almost all of its 30,000 employees. ‘We see the Internet as a tremendous forum for exchanging commercial information and dealing with customers,” the senior bank official says. “But we also need rules on Net usage. People have to remember that when they’re on-line, they’re representing the bank.”

Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook, recently drafted Internet guidelines for two major corporations, one a global mining company and the other a large utility operating in Quebec and Ontario. Carroll generally favors as few restrictions as possible on Net usage, believing that the benefits far outweigh the potential for abuse. He points out, for example, that corporate giants like General Electric now do hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tendering a year over the Internet “If I deny my people access because I’m afraid they’re going to view dirty pictures or join a white-power news group, I’m going to miss out on that business.” Despite that many firms are introducing strict policies on Internet usage. They’re also installing software to keep track of the Web sites their employees visit, the messages they post and the files they download. ‘We aren’t censoring in any way, but we are monitoring what people are doing,” says Enrique Salem, chief technical officer of Symantec Corp., a leading software supplier with 2,000 employees in the United States, Canada and Europe. He adds that companies are worried not only about productivity and the transmission of inappropriate material—recently a worker at one U.S. firm sued her boss for sexual harassment for allowing colleagues to download explicit photos—but also about the ease with which computer viruses can spread over the Net Smart executives know they can’t afford to ignore the emerging electronic marketplace. But they also know that the information highway is littered with potholes for those who fail to manage this new resource.