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Using the Internet at Work - What's The Law?

As we enter the third decade of the 2000s, it is no exaggeration to say that the internet is omnipresent.  Whether on our wrist in the form of a smartwatch, mobile phone, tablet, in our car, or domestic kitchen appliances, using the internet at work and at home has never been easier.  

This, correspondingly, poses a real challenge for employers, who must balance the need for employees to productive, with allowing a reasonable level of internet use.  After all, the internet allows us to communicate with our loved ones, and perform any number of regular life functions, such as booking a doctor appointment, requesting a gas boiler repair, and viewing your child’s school’s online calendar to check what time to collect them.  None of these activities would be viewed as meaningless time-wasting, rather they are part of the functioning of our everyday life.  On the flip side, however, according to Ofcom, adults now check their mobile phones on average every 12 minutes, which may have correspondingly negative impacts on productivity and work focus.

17 December 2019
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What is an Internet Usage Policy?

Many employers use HR internet usage policies (also referred to as acceptable or fair use policies) to clearly define the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable internet use by employees.  These are also used to outline expectations of workers with respect to cybersecurity, training requirements, use of company IT hardware and software, privacy, confidentiality, rules around the use of social media, and copyright rules.  This policy is one of a set of core documents typically drafted and maintained by HR departments (or other administrative function) of a business.  The document aims to ensure a standard approach to the use of the internet and related devices and software across an organisation.  

Using the Internet at Work and the GDPR

Internet and email acceptable use policies are also an essential means by which a company can ensure compliance with the General Data Protection Rules (GDPR).  All businesses in possession of personal data (whether client or employee) have a legal duty under the GDPR and the Data Protection Act (DPA 2018) to ensure its safekeeping.  It is for this reason that businesses spend vast sums on cybersecurity to ensure data is not leaked or breached which could lead to private information falling into the wrong hands and a large fine for the organisation.  Allowing use of the internet by employees for personal use poses a significant risk to businesses by unknowingly allowing viruses or phishing.

How Much of a Concern is Cyberslacking? 

The term ‘cyberslacking’ refers to the use of digital devices for non-essential personal use through the working day.  In October 2019, it was announced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that the UK suffered its worst drop in productivity for five years.  There are many factors at play when it comes to falling productivity, but it is easy to see why employers are understandably keen not to exacerbate these statistics by reducing time wastage negatively.  t is not uncommon for businesses to augment their acceptable internet use policy with site restrictions – for example, by preventing access to news, and social media services.  Research shows that restrictions of this nature can, for some lead to a greater sense of liberation and productivity, but others, a sense of loss and being cut-off.   

Can an Employer Monitor the Internet Use of a Worker?

Employers concerned that specific individuals may be engaged in inappropriate e-mail or internet use may legally monitor their activity; the DPA 2018 does not prohibit employers from doing so.  That said, the right to monitor the internet activity of staff at work should be fully explained in the employee internet policy document and should always be proportionate and justified.  Furthermore, any information gathered must be secure and stored in accordance with the DPA 2018.
Employers do have to tread carefully when it comes to monitoring, however.  In the European Court of Human Rights case of Barbulescu v Romania, monitoring the internet use of a worker who was sending personal messages to family members during work time, was deemed a violation of his fundamental right to private and family life.  This case does not prevent employers from monitoring, but it does have implications for their policies and procedures if an employee is suspected of inappropriate personal internet use.

Can an Employee be Dismissed for Using the Internet for Personal Use at Work?

Social media or internet misuse may be misconduct amounting to a potentially fair reason for dismissal.  Employers should be aware that in some legal cases, doing so has led successful unfair dismissal cases.  In the case of Scarlett and another v Gloucester City Council ET/1401395/12, two employees dismissed for excessive personal internet use brought a successful unfair dismissal claim due to the informal nature of the employer’s internet policy and the prior provision of less serious sanctions for other members of staff who had done the same.  In other cases, employers have been found to have acted lawfully in dismissing staff for excessive personal internet use.  In McKinley v Secretary of State for Defence ET/2302411/04, an employment tribunal agreed with the employer that a senior member of staff spending 10% to 15% of his working time surfing the internet for personal use was excessive. 

Wrapping up- Employee Internet Use Policy

Employees and employers have a role to play in achieving a balance when it comes to personal internet use at work.  Employees should realise that by keeping such use to a minimum, and within the guidelines provides, employers will not be inclined to implement measures to ensure productivity is not damaged.  Employers also need to keep their efforts to control and constrain excessive personal internet use proportionate.  At all times, openness and transparency is the best policy.  Above all, it is important to model the desired behaviour from the top; if senior bosses constrain their use of laptops, mobile phones, and tablets to work use, other members of staff will likely follow suit.  As they say, ‘what's good for the goose is good for the gander’.


Worried about your employees' internet use at work? Maybe you're looking to put policies in place to protect your business. Whether you're an employee or employee, using the internet at work inappropriately can be a cause for concern. Guillaumes LLP employment solicitors are on-hand to assist you and your business in a personal and professional manner. We take the time to consider each case in detail, continuously working in the best interests of your business. To make an appointment or discuss your circumstance, don't hesitate to get in touch.