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By Joel Klebanoff

Surfing for Fun, Not Profit

If you surf to the Web site of Websense, Inc., a Web filtering and security software company, you'll find a couple of press releases about two surveys the company commissioned Harris Interactive, a market research firm, to conduct on Websense's behalf. The surveys looked at the prevalence and the nature of the personal Web surfing that employees do during work hours using company resources. It also examined the gender differences in these behaviors.

A telephone survey of employees interviewed 500 people who were at least 18 years old and who worked at companies with at least 100 employees. A separate online survey interviewed 351 IT decision-makers at similar companies.

According to the surveys, 12% of employees visited a pornographic Web site while at work. Not surprisingly, or at least not surprisingly to me, men did this in greater numbers than women—16% of men versus only 8% of women. Of these people, 94% of the men and 95% of the women said that their visits to the naughty sites were accidental.

I have no clue as to the accuracy of the statistics regarding overall pornography site visits, but the 94% and 95% accidental surfing numbers seem a tad high to me. The employee survey had a sampling error of 4.4%, 19 times out of 20. This means that the possibility that 100% of the pornography site visits were accidental is almost within the 95% confidence range of these surveys.

This seems dubious to me. There's no doubt in my dirty old mind that there is sufficient prurient interest out there such that I've got to believe that more than a few people are intentionally going to porn sites, even while at work. So how can the proportion of total visits that are accidental be anywhere near that high? Oh, hold on a second. I see the reason. According to the survey, 46% of the respondents said that they would be fired for visiting adult sites from work. Hmm. Do you think maybe—just maybe, you understand—that people perceived a tiny incentive to lie about how they ended up at porn sites, just in case their bosses found out about their survey responses?

"Honest, boss, I had absolutely no idea—no idea whatsoever—that was a porn site. Come on, how could I have possibly known that? All I wanted to do was order some paper clips. I was sure I was visiting our stationery supplier's site, but I guess my fingers slipped when I typed its Web address. Of course, I had to view a few hundred pages to be certain I was wrong. Naturally, when I saw what was on the site, my first thought was that our supplier had decided that sex sells and it was using those erotic pictures to entice me to buy the office supplies I saw blurrily depicted in the background of one of the many images. I had to check the site out thoroughly because I didn't want to waste time surfing all over the Internet looking for paper clips if it really was our supplier's site. That would have been terribly unproductive. That's the only reason I spent so much time there. Honest."

Yeah, right. The respondents' fear of getting fired if caught and the angst they might have felt about possibly being looked down upon by the interviewer also make me question whether only 12% of employees had ever visited an adult site while at work, accidentally or not.

One factor does lend some credence to both the total and the accidental porn surfing numbers. The IT decision-makers thought that their employees did personal Web surfing on work time for an average of 5.7 hours per week, but the workers themselves report that they only spend an average of 3.06 hours. Considering that the three most popular types of sites that employees visited from their office computers for non-work reasons—map sites (83% of people visited these types of sites, among others), news sites (80%) and weather sites (76%)—are all quite wholesome, that doesn't leave a lot of the employees' few personal Web surfing hours to spend viewing porn. Then again, the fear of getting fired for any personal Web surfing at work, let alone adult site surfing, might affect the integrity of the responses to questions about that sort of activity. You be the judge.

Another interesting statistic to come out of the survey is that 24% of the respondents admitted to listening to or watching non-work-related streaming audio or video over the Internet at least once a week while at work. I'll bet companies are thrilled to death about paying for high-capacity Internet connections in order to get enough bandwidth to support all of that streaming media viewing and listening, only to have their business' legitimate Internet traffic slow to a crawl when links to the latest hilarious viral video make the rounds of the company's desktops. And, in case you were wondering, I have no idea whether the survey questioned how much of this streaming media was pornographic. The press releases don't mention anything about that.

I should take a moment to note that my boss, despite being a paranoid, neurotic jerk, is quite generous in this regard. If I want to take a few minutes during business hours to use my work computer for a little personal Web surfing, I won't say he doesn't mind at all, but at least he doesn't loudly object to my doing so, even if some small segment of the population might find one or two of the sites I visit to be somewhat morally questionable. Then again, I'm self-employed, so that's neither here nor there.

You might well ask where I'm going with this discussion. In truth, I haven't the foggiest of notions. It's hard to come up with one of these rants every week, so I'm entitled to the occasional slacker column. This is it. (Now, now. I can do without the snide remarks about all of my columns being slacker columns, thank you very much.)

No, wait. I do want to make a point. The suggestion I'm about to offer is not directed at the grunts who accomplish the real work in organizations and whose personal Web surfing habits while on the job are the ones most likely to be scrutinized by the powers that be. It's intended for the people who make and enforce the decisions about employees' personal use of company time and information technology resources. I absolutely agree that you should enforce a policy against employees knowingly visiting sites that are of a nature such that, if the information became widely known among the general public, the workers' surfing activity would reflect badly on the organization. After all, your company's IP address will show up in the visited site's Web server logs. That information might be used against you by the less-than-scrupulous people who run those sites.

However, if your employees occasionally use the company's computers to visit wholesome, benign sites during working hours, go easy on them. Most of those people probably already put in enough extra, uncompensated hours to more than make up for the little bit of personal Web browsing they do at the office. What's more, the occasional mini-break of that nature in the middle of a mind-numbing workday will make them more productive during the majority of the business hours when they are laboring hard on the company's behalf. Besides, tell me this: Where exactly are you, you who are passing judgment on those employees, while you're wasting time reading this mindless drivel? Yeah, that's what I thought. Now, get back to work!

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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