Protect employees’ privacy

Big Brother won’t be watching – at least not the e-mail of the nation’s 30,000 court employees.

The Judicial Conference of U.S. Courts, a 27-judge committee led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, decided last week to remove language from its Internet use policy which stated court employees have no right to privacy when they send e-mail or use the Web. Several judges objected to the policy, and in May judges for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco disabled their network’s monitoring software in protest.

About three-quarters of the nation’s businesses use similar software to track workers’ visits to Web sites, read e-mail sent over local networks, retrieve employees’ voice mail, track their keystrokes and capture screens from selected computers, according to the American Management Association.

The Judicial Conference’s decision to delete its policy authorizing such monitoring in the nation’s court offices was rightly praised by experts who believe this action indicates judges will be more sympathetic to cases challenging workplace privacy violations. Corporate overreaction to the dawn of the communication age does not deserve recognition by the courts.

Employers’ best argument is that employees using workplace e-mail and Internet services are borrowing their companies’ property and thus have no expectation of privacy, a position favored – until now – by the courts. But nowhere else in the body of American law is there any hint that a person surrenders all his or her legal protections solely by being on another’s property. Even a person trespassing with the intent to commit a crime retains a wealth of legal protections against the property owner. The failure of U.S. courts to apply the same principle to an employee entering an employer’s “cyber property” should be reversed and is probably best written off as an example of the trepidation and rush to control usually greeting new ideas or technologies.

Indeed, the legality of employer Internet-monitoring flatly contradicts federal wiretapping laws prohibiting employers from eavesdropping on most employee conversations.

It should become clear to employers, too, that their companies’ rights are not superior to those of their employees, and attempts to control such workplace minutia as the occasional personal e-mail – or phone call or copy – are philosophically wrong in a society where people must be employed to survive. Such measures demoralize employees and waste company resources: after all, if an employee’s personal Web use is not affecting his or her productivity, why buy software and hire more employees to monitor harmless surfing?

The Internet is a staple of the modern workplace, and employers can no more prevent employees’ personal use of it than they can prevent the occasional non-business copy. The courts should lead the way to a better, reasonable Web law in the workplace.