Blown To Bits

NSF’s Internet Porn

Thursday, January 29th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

An NSF internal report revealed that some NSF workers (including at least one high official) were using their NSF computers and Internet connections to view pornography and participate in pornographic chat rooms. Senator Grassley of Iowa, the same Senator Grassley who put the bogus Rimm report on Internet pornography on the cover of Time magazine a decade ago (p. 239 of Blown to Bits), wants answers from NSF. He is threatening to hold up NSF’s #3 billion share of the stimulus money until the Foundation cleans up its act.

Now this story is a good giggle about human stupidity (OK, male stupidity, I expect) and workings of bureaucracies. You do have to wonder, right off the bat, if NSF is being singled out just because it’s the only agency that actually conducted an internal audit of how its systems are being used. (Have they done that in Health and Human Services, for example?)

But there are a couple of more serious questions this raises. The first is whether Senator Grassley’s problem is the agency’s inefficiency or morals. If the report had said that time was being lost to eBay, or to reading stories about US tariffs on Roquefort cheese, would he have been equally upset? Because there is every reason to think that in offices all over the country, government and corporate, people are spending lots of time doing non-work stuff on the Internet. Given the recession, wouldn’t this be the logical time to try to get full value out of every employee?

And then there is the reminder that this stuff can be tracked. Every web site you visit can be recorded, and employers can monitor, analyze, restrict, and punish what we do on the Internet.

For many of us, the Internet has shattered the barriers between work time and home time; it’s as easy to do knowledge work from home as from the office. A certain amount of bleeding in the other direction is inevitable. Where are the limits of control over employee’s actions? I’m willing to go with the good Senator in condemning someone spending 20% of his office time viewing porn, but the workplace needs some reasonable standards, other than “you can’t do anything personal from your office,” or the surveillance and retaliation is going to be capricious and unpredictable.

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