– Internet Pin-up Girls (and Guys)

Internet  Filtering for Government - click for more

Internet Filtering for Government - click for more

Original post: 31 May 2008
First, let me congratulate Mark Stencel, who will be filling at least a portion of Peter Harkness’ shoes as Peter retires from his position as Editor and Publisher of Governing Magazine.  Mark, long-time technology columnist for Governing and governing.com, is a terrific guy with great insight into the often uneasy marriage between government and technology.
In Mark’s recent column, “At Work on the Web” he argues for the reduction or removal of Internet filtering in government agencies. While his reasons are noble, with roots in trust of workers and the fundamental democracy of the web, the realities of working in government agencies give me a different view.
Let me first say that almost all the employees I know at the City of Seattle are ethical, diligent, and hard-working. I see that diligence, that dedication, every day.
But everyone (government employee or not) has their weakness. Some folks are addicted to alcohol, others to shopping, many to cigarettes/smoke breaks and many others to surfing the Internet or YouTube. They can’t help themselves from surfing or bidding on e-bay or browsing MySpace for their friends.
Pin-up girls. The very phrase evokes images from World War II barracks. In City of Seattle call centers in the 1970s, we had problems with pin-up girls decorating cubicles. Then it was pin-up guys. Naked pin-up guys. In guy’s cubicles. We ended up banning all such photos from the workplace and no one would think of allowing them back in today.
Yet I’ve had workers visiting dating sites, and leaving images of half-clothed people on the computer screen scandalizing a co-worker. I’ve seen workers leaving their City e-mail address for craigslist and e-bay sales. I know of employees surfing Internet sex sites. We “flatten” at least five computers (out of 10,000) a week.   (This is a process also known as “re-imaging” or wiping a desktop computer clean and re-installing all programs.)   Why?  Because they became infected with malware from visiting non-business websites.
In every single case cited above, the City employee was a good employee. Hard working and well-intentioned. Someone I’d be proud to call a friend. But they either didn’t know the rules or had to indulge a low-level addiction to the Internet.
One department director tells me how much he loves the “websense” (Internet filtering software) installation in his department because it reduces the number of loudermill hearings he conducts, disciplining workers for non-business use of City computers. Websense helps keep honest people honest.
And hard-working City employees chafe when they see co-workers wasting time “surfing”. My experience is that morale among the top-performing City workers improves when they see low-performing employees unable to indulge their Internet addictions and/or disciplined for it.
Most City government workers earn a living wage. They work 40 hours a week, and many get overtime for hours beyond that. They have both the ability to buy a personal computer for home and the time to indulge themselves in the cyberworld at home. Public employees are held to a higher standard than workers in any other industry. When there’s a disaster, private employers shut down and their employees go home. Public employees work 12 hour shifts for the duration of the emergency.
Those same higher standards apply to use of City equipment, and conduct at work day-to-day, and the Internet content filters remind all of us of our duty to meet that standard.
The Pin-up Girls are long gone from the workplace. Let’s not bring them back with the web and Internet.

4 Comments

Filed under internet, people

4 responses to “– Internet Pin-up Girls (and Guys)

  1. schrier

    Original comment date: 31 May 2008 8:23:53 AM
    AUTHOR: Mark Stencel
    EMAIL: mstencel@governing.com
    IP: 66.17.246.160
    URL: http://www.governing.com
    Many thanks, Bill! Your kind words for Peter and me are much appreciated, as was your valuable wisdom at this morning’s Web 2.0 panel. So glad you could attend.
    On at-work Web access for government employees….
    I have zero doubt that the online abuses you describe occur. I’ve seen them in my own workplaces. But the key passage in your post is this: “In every single case cited above, the City employee was a good employee…. But they either didn’t know the rules or had to indulge a low-level addiction to the Internet.”
    That was EXACTLY my point. We need to make rules that make sense, train employees so they understand those rules, and enforce the rules when they are broken. (Rules like: Do not conduct personal business online using your work e-mail address, and don’t download inappropriate conduct, etc.)
    It makes perfect sense to me that you banned posting pinups on office walls. But you did not ban the walls — and that’s what I’m afraid we’re doing. Blocking access to all of the useful and appropriate content on YouTube just because there also is inappropriate content is the equivalent of banning the wall.

  2. schrier

    Original Comment Date: 3 June 2008 – 5:05:40 AM
    AUTHOR: Bill Schrier
    EMAIL: bill@schrier.org
    Mark:
    Thanks for your comment, but your reference extending the analogy of walls and pin-up posters is a bit flawed. In the case of pin-up posters, what had to be regulated was not the walls nor the posters, but the behavior of employees who could not regulate themselves.
    The same is true of Websense or other Internet monitoring/blocking software. We are not regulating the Internet itself (walls) or content (pin-up posters) but rather the behavior of employees who cannot regulate themselves.
    (Addition, 16 July):
    I also keep in mind the much larger issue here, which the security of networks and computer systems which are used by 11,000 City of Seattle employees to keep government services operational for more than a million people in Seattle and its suburbs.   Our networks and firewalls register hundreds of attacks every day from Internet sources. And many web sites – especially those which have no City government business purpose, are infected with viruses and other malware. A single employee, surfing a single site with a zero-day (i.e. just released by hackers so there would be no anti-virus protection) infection, downloaded onto a computer, could, in turn, compromise our systems and delivery of those critical government services.
    -bill

  3. schrier

    Original Comment Date: 3 June 2008 – 6:25:58 AM
    AUTHOR: Mark Stencel
    EMAIL: mstencel@governing.com
    URL: http://www.governing.com
    Bill:
    We may have an honest disagreement on this topic — but I’m thrilled to be having this discussion with someone I respect as much as you. You have one of the keenest B.S. detectors I know, so I take your opinions on all of this very seriously. And to be clear, I have no problem with Websense and other management tools. Monitoring workers’ online activity? All for it. Blocking sites that are clearly and wildly inappropriate? Absolutely. But blocking access to sites that have potential governmental or even professional application (such as YouTube, or — even worse! — blogs such as this one) because some content might be bad? Isn’t that like unplugging the phones because someone might call their bookie? Is there something about teaching people how to regulate their online behavior that’s harder than, say, regular sexual harassment training or diversity training — complicated subjects, classes on which already are required annually in many workplaces?
    Thanks again for your insights and input, Bill!

  4. schrier

    Original Comment Date: 24 July 2008 7:15 AM
    Walter Neary wrote:
    Obviously, I entered this discussion late but I wanted to compliment you guys for having it because I have enjoyed and learned from the dialogue in Governing. I posted a blog rant about how nobody from government was present at a recent forum I went to about connecting with the public by way of the Internet. As a city councilman, I connect by way of home and work computers. So I had not thought through that a lot of folks who I had hoped to see at this event from government cannot even get to the sites that are discussed.
    Bill, what do you see as the future of dialogue between the community and government on the Internet? Does government have to build its own social networks in order to maintain security? If so, who’s doing the best work in that area? What government entities are having the most robust discussions via the new technologies and social media? Who are the role models?

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