Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

At work, access to innocuous websites has been banned with no explanation. It's really irritating. What is the point?
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The Independent Online

SURFING ON COMPANY TIME

Some of us may envy our friends' salaries, pension provision or holiday entitlement, but they in turn may jealously covet our ability to access personal e-mail or cricket scores during working hours. "The restrictions at my workplace are ridiculous," moans Kath S. "Gmail and Hotmail are blocked, along with Yahoo, MySpace, eBay, any online stores, and any pages featuring sport."

But at least Kath has some internet access, however meagre. Steph Ashley recalls her previous job, where "everything except the company's own site was blacklisted. On a quiet day, you'd stare out of the window or doodle on a notepad."

Our correspondents' tales of banned pages range from pictures of an employee's new-born baby ("she tried to reason with the IT department, to no avail") to horoscopes ("it's classed as occult religion"). What is it with these seemingly arbitrary restrictions?

"Content filtering has three aims," explains Tom Sulston. "Stopping viruses reaching company networks, reducing the risk of the company being sued for computer misuse, and combating timewasting." This is generally done with generic software packages such as SurfControl. Filtering techniques include blacklists (pages that have been deemed unsuitable), keyword filtering (which, in its most zealous form, may deny access to sites mentioning, say, the words Essex or Middlesex) and systems that analyse the amount of naked flesh in image files. Of course, few people would try to justify accessing pornography at work, but the biggest gripe seems to be banning access to personal e-mail.

Many correspondents had been warned for excessive internet use, and a couple have been sacked. "I knew my time was nearly up," writes Jenny, "when they even banned me from charging up my iPod at work."

And escaping companies that restrict internet access can prove tricky, writes Pippa Chisholm. "In my previous job, our e-mails were scanned for the word 'CV'."

Diagnosis required

Next week's question is from Glen Pearson:

"I've just bought an album for just over $1 from a Russian MP3 site. It claims to be legal, but it seems too good to be true. Is it?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.

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