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Balancing Web filtering and employee privacy

Employers are increasingly concerned with how their employees use the Internet; legal liability and lost productivity can result from goofing off, viewing offensive material or downloading huge files that clog up the network. These concerns have spurred growth in the market for Web-filtering software -- from companies such as WebSense Inc., SurfControl plc, Secure Computing Corp. and others -- that can both block inappropriate material and monitor what Web sites employees visit.

According to a recent report written by Jose Lopez, an analyst with the San Antonio-based research firm Frost & Sullivan, Web-filtering software firms brought in $274 million in 2002. He expects that revenue to grow 21% per year through 2007, when the market will be $776 million. He recently told SearchNetworking.com what's behind the growth and described some of the challenges IT departments should be aware of when implementing Web-filtering software.

Vendors in this market often say their products help to clear up bandwidth. Is this really an effective way to do that?
Corporate bandwidth is expensive, and companies are always looking at ways to improve the efficiency of bandwidth. Web-filtering can be an effective way of dealing with problems exacerbated by inappropriate transferring of large image and sound files. Most companies don't allow employees to download music, for example, but they have no way to enforce that policy. With Web-filtering software, they can now enforce their policies on Internet use. What is driving this growth?
There are three drivers: increasing productivity, preserving corporate bandwidth and helping companies to avoid lawsuits. If employees have unfettered access to the Internet, they may access a Web site that will offend a colleague. Increasingly, companies feel they need to be protected against that. Employees have sued companies for exposing them to pornography or racist information. If companies can block certain URLs, they can allow legitimate business use of the Internet without fear of lawsuits. Are IT organizations the best ones to monitor Internet use?
These systems are being integrated into gateways and firewalls, and they target corporate bandwidth so, in that sense, IT departments should be involved. But business managers and human resources departments are the ones concerned with increasing productivity. Often, when it comes to purchasing these products, business managers have more say than IT managers. So implementing these products takes collaboration with other departments. Often, different departments will have their own requirements for how they do and do not want their employees using the Internet, requiring differing levels of freedom to be granted throughout the organization. There will also be collaboration across different business units. What about increasing productivity? Does Web filtering really help with that?
There is no guarantee that if employees are not surfing the Web that they are working. They may take a break or talk to their colleagues instead. Do you see any employee backlash to filtering and monitoring?
There has to be a balance. Employees spend much of their time at work. Some people may need to purchase a gift online or book holiday travel tickets. It is important from the employee's point of view to allow some freedom. Some sites will always be inappropriate, like gambling or pornography, but others, like online retailers or travel agencies, might be appropriate. Allowing broader access after hours or during lunch might be a good approach. [By using Web-filtering software], you are taking away freedom from the employees, which you can't do all at once. It is important to not be seen as militaristic. Over the next few years, will unlimited Internet access at work become a distant memory?
This is one of the fastest growing markets, not only within IT security, but also within the entire IT market. Most Fortune 1000 companies are at least in the testing stage with Web-filtering products, but it may not be for everyone. Some companies feel that they have more immediate security concerns. Some managers think their employees are responsible enough to manage their own time. There are also still problems with sites being blocked that shouldn't. And the software itself has been known to create congestion on the network as it moves through its workload. All of this may put some companies off, but many have shown strong interest.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Ask security expert Michael Gregg about Web-filtering

Browse our Topics on developing policies

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