On the heels of the HP corporate scandal is a timely article from Annalee Newitz of the NewScientist.com news service, which explores blogs in the context of employee monitoring. The concept of companies monitoring their employees to ensure productivity is not new, but the relatively quick ascendancy of the blog as a medium demonstrates that innovation has once again outpaced legislation.

Mainstream media has widely reported that the line between public and private spheres is being blurred with the steady evolution of the pda. But today’s companies are taking things a few steps further, as Newitz notes, “log into work computers from home and employers can track what blogs you create, sign into or post to, or what you write on newsgroups, even outside work hours.” Suddenly the blog begins to look less like an outlet for personal expression and more like a minefield of potential missteps disallowing employment or advancement.

The National Workrights Institute (NWI) in Princeton states that current laws enable US companies to legally watch everything employees do. Only two states require prior notification of surveillance. The very same laws that prevent companies from eavesdropping on personal phone calls do not extend to the internet. Employees are, to an extent, given free reign to use the phone for personal calls, but are given no such protection for using the internet over their lunch break – the screens viewed and the words typed are all fair game. As Jeremy Gruber, legal director of NWI, puts it, “legislatures are slow to address changes in technologies. There’s simply been no federal response to the problem of computer monitoring.”

The next phase of surveillance is already beginning: “Employers are going to blogs and social networking sites when hiring.” The real problem with this isn’t the potential issue of the right to privacy. Indeed, one could argue that the very act of participating in a blog runs counter to the reasonable expectation of privacy. Rather, the primary concern is that companies patrolling the blogosphere may hinder free speech. The potential harm caused by posting an article or comment may so greatly outweigh the benefit that it creates a chilling effect, whereby people simply avoid blogs altogether.

Blogging during business hours is one thing, and employers have every right to want to enforce codes of conduct that prevent that behavior. But when the panoptic eye of a company extends its gaze to employees during lunch break and after normal business hours, it goes beyond the desire to ensure productivity and enters the realm of censorship by intimidation. It is unfortunate that in Francis Scott Key’s “land of the free and home of the brave,” one who is now brave in the blogosphere may soon find they are free from steady employment in the near future. [Written by Nathan Rodriguez, PBB Research Associate]

Originally posted October 25, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

One Comment

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    Original Reader Comments (2)

    I agree with the line you’re taking here Dr. Perlmutter… but just to play devil’s advocate for a moment… 🙂

    Not so many generations ago, when towns and cities were smaller, labor laws far less friendly to workers and the primary mode of political self-expression was the soapbox on the street corner, there was at least as great a threat of such a chilling effect–probably more.

    Might it not be the case that it’s the ordinary person’s *expectation* of anonymity that’s accelerated ahead of their knowledge of how the technology (and the law) works?

    There are ways to blog, comment and even to conduct commerce pseudonymously (more common, practical and interesting than true anonymity). They just haven’t gained much headway in the market or the popular consciousness. Why? Because not enough people see the need for such measures–which necessarily entail some extra work and care to find and use effectively. The 19th century analogy might be to the necessity of wearing a disguise if one wanted to get up on one’s soapbox without fear of retribution. It’s easier to just get up on the soapbox. The savvy however, knew were to locate fake moustaches and how to paste them on.
    October 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKobayashi Maru

    Hi: This piece was written by Nathan Rodriguez, this blog’s Research Associate.
    October 30, 2006 | Registered Commenterdavid.d.perlmutter

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