The Growing Problem of Porn at Work

Mar 20, 2009 4:15 PM PST
LOS ANGELES — With so much focus on the economy lately, it's no wonder that the economics of worker productivity are also receiving considerable scrutiny — especially when it comes to viewing porn on company time.

Human Resources departments at companies worldwide are grappling with workplace wankers and the various issues surrounding their masturbatory malingering — from lost productivity to sexual harassment; from exposure to malware to liability over potentially illegal downloads, even long after they were thought to have been deleted by the user — along with the immense legal expenses some of these problems may result in.

While this observer suspects that an equal or greater amount of productivity is lost to instant messaging, email chains and other personal use of the Internet on company time, none of those venues makes for as sexy a headline as "sex."

And so it was, as Scientific American reported, that an employee at the National Science Foundation (NSF) was recently fired for spending "a significant amount of time at work perusing pornography."

Apparently the internally-handled case came to light in the NSF's semiannual report, which claimed a loss of $58,000 from the employee's "misuse of time and resources" — a report which was read by Iowa senator Charles Grassley who became incensed over this erotic extravagance.

"The semiannual report raises real questions about how the National Science Foundation manages its resources, and Congress ought to demand a full accounting before it gives the agency another $3 billion in the stimulus bill," Grassley said.

But what can be done about these problems?

Although NSF had reportedly installed filters since the raunchy revelations (which eventually extended beyond one lone lecher), Grassley mingled with Senators Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Richard Shelby of Alabama to bemoan this outrage at the taxpayer's expense; following with an amendment to the near trillion dollar stimulus bill which would withhold $3 million in NSF operating funds until the foundation undertook additional measures to prevent pornography from being accessed across its network.

As a result of these challenges, one solution being adopted by government, industry and academia is the use of hardware and/or software-based content filtering solutions that block access to "inappropriate" websites based upon known domain blacklists / whitelists as well as by reading code embedded into the web pages — such as an ICRA or RTA tag.

According to Brandon "Fight The Patent" Shalton, who while serving as ASACP's CTO helped create it, the Restricted To Adults (RTA) website label is an HTML tag that is placed within the section of all web pages that the website owner has deemed not appropriate for children or for the workplace — or for adults who don't want to see sexually explicit material.

"Corporate firewalls or desktop filtering software could search for this tag and if found, block it," Shalton told XBIZ.

One concern of today's e-marketers is the wholesale blocking of domains by some content filtering systems; particularly those that rely on simple blacklisting for their blocking database. RTA offers mixed-marketing mavens the ability to block some of their site's pages — but not necessarily all of them.

"Filtering right now occurs at the domain level, so would be blocked, no matter what page was viewed by the user if it were on the block list," Shalton observed, adding that "the RTA label allows for specific pages to be blocked."

Declaring a web page as being adult in nature is only part of the solution, however, with its efficacy relying on user preferences and knowledge.

"IE has had an ICRA blocking function in its web browsers for over a decade and most parents don't know its there," Shalton said. "ICRA is also not widely adopted."

"Web browsers such as IE and FF could have an additional filter put in, that when enabled, would search for the RTA tag and then block that specific page," Shalton added. "This means that it is possible to block at the web browser level, because that function already exists in IE — it just needs a minor change to adopt RTA."

While Internet Explorer is the dominant web browsing software, it is not the only one.

"Firefox could have this filter as its plugin architecture allows for either a third party to create the RTA blocking plugin, or have it be incorporated into FF to do the blocking," Shalton concluded.

For adult website operators, the increasing attention to this issue will inevitably lead to increasing policy restrictions and technical means to prevent punters from enjoying our wares at work — and a corresponding decline in website traffic volume. Seeking an alternative method for marketing to this audience may thus become one of the more notable e-commerce puzzles in the years ahead.

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