BOSTON — Downloading pornography has long been a concern about children using the Internet, but American businesses are just now coming to grips with grownup trips into cybersmut.
Not only do workers waste enormous blocks of time pursuing porn on the Web, they may be setting up their employers for sexual harassment lawsuits.
Porn sites are by far the most popular and lucrative sites on the Net.
A survey last year by A.C. Nielsen found that in one month, employees at IBM, Apple, and AT&T spent the equivalent of 1,631 work days - 13,048 hours - on the site for Penthouse magazine.
The Net, experts say, seems to lull many workers into a false sense of security. And because it's an audio and video medium, pornography can seem more appealing.
But what workers forget, law experts say, is that what they do on company property is company business.
Companies increasingly prohibit X-rated viewing and reprimand, sometimes fire, employees who break the rules.
But the consequences could be more serious. If one worker feels offended or intimidated by the presence of nudity on a co-worker's computer screen, a sexual harassment lawsuit could follow.
The problem is new, and apparently no suits have been filed yet, but it may just be a question of time, experts say.
"If I download the Playmate of the Month and put it on my terminal, it could be deemed offensive by various employees walking past my terminal," says Gordon Ross, a software company executive. "So [companies] are worried about those types of harassment suits."
"The same person that used to hang the lewd or inappropriate joke on the bulletin board or next to the water cooler, will always exist, it's now just in a different way," says Leonard Nuara, an attorney in Morristown, N.J., and a member of the Computer Law Association in Fairfax, Va.
One employee, who requested anonymity, describes walking through the office cubicles one day and spotting a co-worker watching a porno video.
"It was very obvious there was a lot of skin," he says. "I was a little surprised that they didn't seem to care who saw them. I know I wasn't the first person to walk by."
The boss cares, and many companies are taking action with specific policies on Internet usage (see story, below). One example: "Only visit those sites where you would want to leave your business card."
Some businesses go further. Many have turned to sophisticated software that monitors where employees roam in cyberspace - sometimes without their knowledge.
Many also block some sites. AT&T, for example, now restricts employee access to Penthouse and similar sites.
But makers of monitoring software say an infallible filter is nearly impossible.
"The administrative cost to try and block everything out there is just mind boggling," says Mr. Ross, president of Net Nanny in Vancouver, British Columbia, which sells monitoring software.
New pornographic sites pop up all the time, he says, and others change their addresses if they know they're being blocked.
The issue also raises legal questions - an employee's rights of speech and privacy versus a company's right to protect itself.
But legal scholars say the courts usually uphold a company's right to monitor what workers do on company property.
A professor at the University of Oklahoma, for example, last year lost such a suit in which he claimed the school violated his First Amendment rights by blocking access to some Internet sites.
Sequel Technology, which makes Internet monitoring software in Bellevue, Wash., monitors its own employees' Internet use and has a policy on it.
As a result, it has never found any employees checking out porn sites, says company president Stuart Rosove.
"We're trying to walk that fine line between freedom of speech, freedom of access, and privacy," he says.
Still, he and others admit that many companies don't think they have a problem - or at least aren't willing to admit they do.
One large agency, for example, purchased Sequel's software.
"Just for fun," Mr. Rosove says, the agency decided to monitor which sites workers were visiting. The No. 1 attraction: Penthouse.com.