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Too many e-traders surfing at work

July 7, 1999
Web posted at: 10:59 a.m. EDT (1459 GMT)

by Stacy Collett
stock internet


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(IDG) -- Pornography, check. Online auctions, check. Sports sites, check. MIS director Jeff LePage thought his company's network was insulated from the Internet sites that typically lure employees away from their work.

Those activities are policed and in some cases blocked with monitoring software because the company policy at American Fast Freight Inc. in Seattle clearly states that any online activity "not specifically and exclusively work related" is prohibited.

So imagine LePage's surprise when a new culprit emerged: He recently discovered that one employee had visited a stock-monitoring Web site 186 times during a 12-day period. "We've been bitten" by the online investing bug, LePage said. He isn't alone.

According to a study by SurfWatch Software, a division of Spyglass Inc. in Los Gatos, Calif., investment sites are now second only to general news as the Web addresses most visited by people at work knocking out the pornography, entertainment and sports sites that dominated the first quarter of 1998.

The stock market boom and the day-trading frenzy at Web sites such as and have created a form of recreational surfing that hits employers especially hard. The best time to trade is during business hours, and that means greater demands on a company's network bandwidth and resources, as well as a substantial productivity hit.
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The amount of time that at-work visitors spent on the top 10 financial Web sites increased nearly 60% on average from December 1998 to March 1999, according to Media Metrix Inc., a New York company that monitors Internet traffic. For instance, at-work Internet users spent an average of 4.4 hours during the month of March at an investment hub called a 166% increase since December, the report said.

Yet few companies have written Internet usage policies that specifically prohibit online investing.

A Computerworld survey of 102 network administrators found that 55% noticed employees trading stocks or visiting investment sites during work hours. Only 40% of the companies had written policies that prohibit specific online activities, and only a quarter of those policies mentioned online trading. And just 8% of companies block access to investment Web sites, the survey found.

Who pays?

Online investing is a special problem for companies that bill clients by the hour, such as the law firm Epstein, Becker & Green PC in New York. Employees may be spending hours trading stocks and charging that time to a client. "It's something that we'll be dealing with more and more," said David Kroening, assistant director of technology and operations.

The firm uses software from Kirkland, Wash.-based Content Technologies Inc., which scans Web pages and blocks employees from opening executable files. That means employees can check out the price of a stock but can't place an order. "They're probably just turning around and picking up the phone" to make a trade, Kroening acknowledged.

But employees increasingly are demanding access to now-blocked sites for business purposes, he said. When that Internet floodgate opens, online trading will increase, and so will Kroening's monitoring.

Some online investment activity occurs under the radar of even vigilant network managers, because seemingly innocuous Web sites such as let users set up customized stock news and portfolio tracking pages. "They require a cookie to see what an individual is doing," LePage said. "You would even have to do a spot check on the person's computer to see what the activity actually is."

Kroening said there isn't much he can do to monitor those "personal pages," but if he notices someone generally using the Web a lot, he will notify the employee's manager. "It's more of a personnel issue now" than a technical one, he said.

Unlike online pornography, employee stock trading doesn't put the company in jeopardy for lawsuits. So companies are more likely to try to limit online investing to some acceptable level than to try to stamp it out entirely.

Cellular One in San Francisco, which has had episodes of employees visiting investment sites, developed a rule of thumb for determining how much is too much. An employee spending 30 to 40 minutes per day on recreational browsing will probably show up on a list of Internet abusers, said Eric Fermon, senior information network specialist. The company can then choose to cut off an employee's access to the Internet.

The company uses SurfWatch software that can be set to allow visits to stock sites only during lunchtime and outside normal office hours, Fermon said, "but we haven't tuned it to that pitch yet."

Pull out the policy

Even companies with an Internet usage policy may not have updated it to cover the surge in online stock trading.

At electronics company Hella North America Inc. in Flora, Ill., online trading is starting to show up on network logs. "There have been instances where people spend up to two hours in one setting doing stuff like this," said Dustin Hackney, network administrator. Hella's Internet policy states that browsers should be used only for business purposes and only during business hours, but it doesn't specifically prohibit online investing.

Experts said it's time for companies to drag out their Internet policy and specifically include a limit on personal investment activity. "If there's not a policy, there's going to be an argument," said Peter Kershaw, president of Content Technologies.

Since the online trading incident at American Fast Freight, the company has amended its Internet usage policy to specifically prohibit use of online investing sites during work hours except for lunchtime.

"In all honesty, no one said on the front end that he was not supposed to do this," LePage said, referring to the employee who went on a 12-day stock-watching binge. "And you can't really penalize someone for that if they don't know. But a level of common sense would dictate this probably isn't appropriate."

Most frequent recreational surfing by employees:

  • Sports
  • Stock trading
  • Job hunting
  • Pornography

    Base: Survey of 102 network administrators at companies with 500 or more employees. Source: Computerworld IT Intelligence Unit, Framingham, Mass.

    Brandel is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Mass.

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