What the Law Says About Personal Internet Usage at Work

Each day, millions of employees arrive at work and settle in to do their daily tasks using their company-provided PCs or laptops. While these tasks can certainly keep them busy, there are moments when employees inadvertently stray from what they’re paid to do.

Whether conducting online banking transactions or shopping for something needed at home, employees often use their work equipment to perform quick tasks or errands. In some cases, however, workers have been known to abuse their access and spend hours on social media or browsing the internet rather than working.

As far back as 2015, a survey found that almost 50% of working adults admitted to using their work internet connection during work time for personal reasons. Considering more systems and activities have moved online since then, it is estimated that this number is now closer to 65% of adults.



Reasons for Personal Use of Work Internet

Although the reasons vary widely from one employee to the next, there are several general categories under which employees use the internet for personal reasons. Each of these is based on the report mentioned above.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents mentioned avoiding work or being bored with their tasks as the prevailing reason. The second most common reason (21%) was that the employee simply didn’t want to wait until after work to complete the errand.

Other reasons included that their workplace had a better internet connection (13%), that employees didn’t have time to complete the tasks at home (8%), that they didn’t have an internet line at home (3%), or that they wanted to hide their activities from those at home (3%).

What the Law Says

Companies are in a tough position when it comes to addressing excessive personal internet usage at work in the USA. There is no formal law prohibiting the use of an employer’s PC for personal reasons during work hours.

Companies are encouraged to implement extensive internet usage policies in place of law. These are designed to clearly outline the company’s expectations regarding how employees should or shouldn’t use the internet while at work.

This policy states fair reasons for its implementation, an expanded description of what constitutes improper use of the internet while at work (e.g., spending work hours browsing social media or gambling because the casino has a high-paying ratio), and a full explanation of what proper or acceptable use may be.

The policy should also include statements prohibiting the undue encryption of information, clauses relating to communication over the internet, limits on internet usage, and a statement that violation of the policy could result in disciplinary measures against employees.

While each of these things may not have a federal law backing them up (such as limiting internet usage in the workplace), being part of the company’s formal policy will protect employers. With this policy in place, businesses will have the legal right to discipline workers in breach of any clause as part of their policy framework.

Privacy

One section that should be added to internet usage policies not mentioned above relates to privacy. This clause should be included to protect business interests. It should read that all aspects of an employee’s use of a company-issued computer may be monitored without prior notice.

In this regard, the US does have formal laws that allow employers to do this. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, companies have the right to record or monitor any activity undertaken using equipment issued to employees.

The underlying reason is that the employee’s equipment used for work or personal reasons remains the company’s property. Therefore, they have a vested interest in knowing if the equipment is being used for the purposes it was issued and whether it is being used in accordance with an active internet usage policy.

While significant outcry claims this monitoring is an invasion of privacy, the law allows companies to do this freely. The one condition they must meet is that it must be done for a legitimate business purpose, not just on a whim.

Further outcry regarding monitoring personal internet usage at work has been related to the fact that companies need to issue no warning that activities are being or will be monitored. The law allows businesses to monitor employee machines without informing them.

In some states, however, this has changed. Due to these outcries of privacy invasion, states like Connecticut and Delaware have passed laws to tackle these issues. In these states, an employer may not monitor an employee’s usage without first informing the employee of when and how the company intends to do so or before getting informed consent from the employee.

With digital privacy becoming a hot topic internationally, some other states have recently passed similar laws. New York and California are among these, with California initially wanting to go beyond requiring consent or awareness.

In this state, the initial draft of the California Privacy Rights Act wanted to prohibit employees from monitoring workers who are using their personal devices or are off duty, stop workers from seeing any information gathered about them by the company, and stop companies from using facial recognition.

While not all of these aspects were included in the final draft of the law, what was established is that workers have the right to know what information a company has gathered on them. In addition, employees have a right to request that information be deleted or changed to be more accurate.

Conclusion

For employees in the USA, it is essential to understand that personal use is not recommended when a company has structures such as internet usage policies in place. All activities undertaken on a company-issued device can legally be monitored and recorded. This monitoring must be communicated to those living in certain states, and consent must be given. In California, employees also have the right to access, delete, or change this information, which helps protect companies and employees alike.

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