Even before Corporate America realized how wonderful the World Wide Web is for research and communications, employees made their own discovery: it's a great way to goof off.
Employees are logging onto the Web to follow their favorite sports, read movie reviews, ogle this month's Playboy centerfold, oh yeah, and get a little work done.
All of which has corporate execs worrying that too much extra-curricular Web surfing could cut into productivity, or worse, lead to legal liabilities.
Their concerns have caused software publishers that got started blocking kids from X-rated Web sites to develop programs that track employees' Internet use and block sites not related to work.
"Corporations are just starting to understand what their needs are, and what cyberloafing is all about," said Ann Duvall, president of SurfWatch (http://www.surfwatch.com/), a Los Altos, Calif., maker of Web blocking software.
The list of companies that have begun Web patrols includes Boeing, Marathon Oil, Lockheed, United Technologies, and Marriott.
Although on-line surveillance smacks of Big Brother, companies are within their rights, legal experts say.
The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act made it a crime to eavesdrop or access private communications sent by phone, voice mail, electronic mail or the Internet. But companies are usually exempt: in most circumstances they can monitor workers' communications because they own the networks or pay for employees' Internet access.
Still, companies would do best to let employees know that their on-line activity is being monitored so there's no chance workers assume their Web sessions are private, which could lead to legal problems, said lawyer Barry D. Weiss, a technology specialist with Gordon & Glickson in Chicago.
Weiss recommends that companies insert Internet usage rules into employee handbooks and have workers sign statements that they understand those rules as part of their Internet training.
Such steps may seem drastic, but for some companies they're a necessity.
That's what Webster Network Strategies (http//www.webster.com/) found when the company began auditing potential customers for its Web blocking software.
"The lowest we ever found was 20 percent of (a company's) Internet use was non-work related," said Stephen Dempsey, sales and marketing vice president at the Naples, Fla. …