WASHINGTON - Corporations are moving beyond monitoring personal phone calls and checking for staplers vanishing from the supply closet in their search for savings. Now, they're going after those lost hours on the Internet.
With 2.3 million corporate lines capable of providing Internet access, growing numbers of companies are looking for ways to oversee just where on the fabled World Wide Web their workers are wandering.
In fact, four of the top 20 news and entertainment sites on the Web are adult sites like Cyberotica.com, Smutland.com, Playboy.com and Amateurs.com (an adult search engine), according to a recent survey by PC Meter, which tracks Internet site visits by 10,000 users.
Enter Sequel Technology, a Bellevue, Wash., company that is offering software that tells companies when, where and how often employees go online. The software also can block unapproved sites.
If corporate managers - long suspicious of just what their Dilberts are up to online - are cheering, privacy advocates have a sharply different view of what seems to them to be spying.
"It's supremely bad," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "It's one thing to say `no reading on the job' but quite another to say `let me see what you're reading."'
Stuart Rosove, the 32-year-old chief executive officer of Sequel, insists that his company's software isn't designed for spying.
"This is not to dictate how people use the Internet but for companies to set a best-use policy and use the software to enforce it," Mr. Rosove said.
Already, software programs can track where employees go on the Web and others like Net Nanny can block out sites. But Sequel Tech is the first company to marry the two services. It enables companies to set up guidelines for when, who and what destination employees can seek out.
Mr. Rosove is quick to point out that this software has more uses than just being a Big Brother presence. Just last week, the software allowed his company to trace the drain of Internet line space to an employee who was watching a television broadcast on his computer.
Companies can use it to show that providing online access is a good investment, or to help them put in place the infrastructure that will allow them to provide access to hundreds of users rather than just a handful.
But critics are not convinced.
"If you need guidelines, just set them up," Mr. Rotenberg said. "Companies should be using performance-based reviews to monitor employees, not who they may be calling during the day or what may pop up on their screen."
Mr. Rosove answers that companies are paying for computer access and this is the only way to measure what workers are doing on company time.
Lab Safety, a reseller of safety supplies in Janesville, Wis., started monitoring Web use in November.
"It put our minds at rest," said John Alexander, a technology planner for Lab Safety. "We don't see the amount of usage that people were concerned with. People here are OK with it. They understand that it should be used for business purposes."
Mr. Rosove also noted that companies could be held liable for offenses if someone downloads child pornography or sexual harassing material.
"Be it sexual harassment, be it hate literature, if someone complains to management, (a company) could be slapped with a lawsuit," Mr. Rosove said. He added that companies need to show due diligence by taking steps to prevent such things.
Last year, Compaq Computer dismissed about 20 employees for logging onto sexually explicit sites 1,000 times each, and Morgan Stanley of New York faces $70 million worth of lawsuits from employees over the e-mail forwarding of racist jokes.
When Microsoft discovered last year that an employee was downloading child pornography, it turned him into the police and he was convicted.
"Tools like Sequel Tech's will become critical to the Internet over time," said Paul Noglows, an Internet analyst for San Francisco's Hambrecht and Quist investment bank. "It's not something exotic like people make it out to be. It needs to be managed as a business tool."
Thus far, Dean Witter, Dollar Rent-A-Car and Lab Safety have purchased the software, at least on a trial basis, Mr. Rosove says.
The two products currently on the market are Sequel Net Access Manager and Sequel NetPIM. The first is server-based software that can be used with any browser and can be purchased at an individual level for anywhere from $10 to $49. NetPIM is stand-alone software that is easily modified to individual users for Web management.