I have to laugh about it. It's funny! I've spoken to my one Real Life noder friend, and he says that there is nothing unusual about it. I submit for your amusement evidence that I put more effort into composing my nodes that I do into the assignments I write for my Diploma of Network Engineering course.

Let me explain. I study at TAFE. A TAFE is like a crappy government-run university in Australia. The course content is often a joke, and we've had several lecturers who were less knowledgable than over half of the students in the class. Most of the students in IT courses are people who for academic or financial reasons are not able to get into Uni.

That said, I find the work at TAFE to be generally easy as hell. The requirements for passing the courses are moderated until over 90% of any idiots who apply are able to pass. There, I'm being judged up against idiots. Here, I'm being judged against people who write interesting, humorous and informative stuff in their spare time!

And so I come to the point. Believe it or not the text I have posted below was the final assessment for my Network Security course. The assessment is an essay, the question: "In your opinion is company monitoring of employee email and web use an ethical problem?"

I'm sure you're laughing by now too. Especially if you actually are Network Engineer, or know anything about network security.

One final note, before I include the entire essay in the exact form in which I will submit it tomorrow: Although I refer to myself as "A damn fine geek" in the essay, I have no delusions about my accomplishments compared with the lofty denizens of this most hallowed place. I am indeed a geek of considerable skill when compared to my peers at TAFE, but my experience is not so narrow as to make me feel superior to, for example, anyone with a technical job.

As a matter of fact, none of the stuff I say in the essay is a very good representation of my views. It is a social experiment: I am proving that I can submit any crap that I feel like and still get full marks. That's how hard TAFE is, so long as you're not a complete fool.

Binary Ethics

(Note that in this essay, I present arguments in a far more arrogant and conceited fashion than I would normally dare. Just my way of trying to keep this interesting. Don’t take this essay too seriously. As a matter of fact, don’t take this essay in the least bit seriously, although whoever decided to specify an essay on an ethical question probably wasn’t taking themself seriously anyway. Just to make it completely clear, the views presented in this essay are, for want of a better word, insane.)

“In your opinion, is company monitoring of employee email and web use an ethical problem?”

Part I: Beginnings of a valid ethical debate quickly descending into monomania

This is a strange question. I have not been asked whether I think it is right or wrong for employers to monitor the actions of their staff, but whether it is ethical. I can see arguments for both sides.

On the one side, one could argue that it is a performance related issue: the company is paying a resource (money) in order to secure another resource (labour), and by monitoring the activity of the latter, a company is simply ensuring that their investment is paying off.

On the other, if an employee is producing whatever it is his duty to produce, does a company have a right to demand anything else of them? If I am, for a random example, employed as a web engineer, should the value of my work not be judged solely by the product I have made, rather than what I was doing when the boss wasn’t looking? If I am producing twice as much content than the other web engineers, and my HTML is of higher quality than that of my peers, shouldn’t my employer overlook the fact that I am researching drug manufacturing techniques and looking at “naked” pictures of Lara Croft on paid time?

The obvious answer, of course, is “yes”. It’s clearly bad business practice to secure a resource and then fail to monitor its performance. It is also clearly none of my employers business what I do in my spare time so long as I do what I’m paid to do.

So far, I’ve presented two seemingly good arguments for opposite sides. You may be wondering if this entire essay is going to be inconclusive philosophical gibberish which goes neither here nor there. For those of you who have developed a taste for my signature passionate rants, the good part of the document starts here.

Of course it’s none of my employer’s business what I do, or how I do it, so long as I do what I’m paid to do. Allow me to shed any mask of common decency which I wear in public: I’m a damn fine geek. I know what I’m doing. I can learn new skills, new operating systems, new programming languages faster than all but a few people I know. I’m good, and I know it. And that gives me rights above and beyond those of the common cube farm suit.

I can spend more than half of my time goofing off, and still get work done before schedule. It’s not hard for me. I can spend several hours composing a report for Everything2.com in work hours, and still get whatever I’m being paid to do finished before the deadline. I can send lecherous anonymous emails to shocked schoolgirls just to try to start an irrational flame war with Adelaide’s worst information service, A Current Affair, or solicit sexual favours from the chicks in marketing in the electronic guise of The Boss, just to see if I can get my hands on some decent blackmail material.

I can do all of this. And, if I have the slightest inclination to, I would. If you employ me, (and after reading this, anyone who employs me should probably be given a nice new white jacket with lots of straps and no arms) you are paying for my services. You cannot buy my loyalty. You cannot pay me to behave nicely. You cannot buy my respect. Unless you surprise me with a particularly challenging position and a salary with a helluva lotta numbers in it, you cannot even buy my time. If you employ me, all you can buy is the right to expect at least as much productivity out of me as you are getting out of the other shmoes in my position.

I hear your shocked voices: “But Michael,” they gasp breathlessly, “that’s not ethical!” I disagree. Not only is it ethical, it’s honest, which is better than most people are able to provide when faced with an ethical question.

To expand: I reserve the right to act in any way I see fit, to say what I please, to act how I please, to show up to work in shorts and a T-shirt when everyone else is wearing a suit, because I don’t feel obliged to act in any certain way just to earn brownie points from the boss. In the confines of a job, I will acknowledge one and only one way of judging an employee’s worth: By assessing the employee’s productivity. This extends to include such factors as whether I am disturbing other employee’s productivity, and I respect that: I will refrain from causing others to neglect their work. I will not deliberately upset people by loudly shouting out my bizarre views on abortion and drug law reform in front of the pregnant girl or the mother who’s 18 year old daughter died of a heroin overdose. In fact, for someone who reserves the right to act in any way he pleases, I will behave in a generally decent manner.

But I’m not behaving in this manner because I am being payed by an employer. I feel no obligation to curb my actions for the boss’s sake. I behave like a decent human being; a) because I find it makes the day go by with a minimum of social friction and confrontation, and b) so that no one suspects what I’m really like.

Part II: Employer’s rebuttal

Now an attempt to improve the ratio of sanity-to-insanity in this essay to at least 1:1. At a fundamental level, an employer has obligations toward an employee, and an employee has obligations towards an employer. I honestly believe that when it is all boiled down, the most simple and elegant way to express this relationship is to say that an employee is obliged to perform services for the employer, and the employer is obliged to pay the employee for the services. I know that in this great democratic country, the relationship can be said to be far more complex than this, that employers are expected to support and provide for their employees situations, as they arise. They are supposed to care, and cultivate a good employee/employer relationship, and dynamically make allowances for circumstances the employee’s changing situation as they traverse the rocky road of life. And the employers could be said to expect something in return.

An employee should make an effort to fit in. He (as in I) should strive for what is best for his growing family of skilled peers. He should be kind, courteous, and polite. He should try not to rub against the grain. After all, this isn’t too much to ask of me, when they’ve given so much, is it?

And while we’re at it, what of the law? If I use business resources, such as internet bandwidth to access material which advocates actions that are contrary to the law of the country, surely this is a breach of the relationship’s boundaries. If I use these resources to propagate views which the law deems unsavoury or dangerous, surely the company has a right to know, and to prevent repeat offences, or even to rid itself of the rot of employee disillusionment.

Finally, if the company has paid for resources such as internet access and network infrastructure, and has acquired these products for specific, productivity related functions, is it not the employer’s prerogative to monitor the use of the resources to ensure that expensive bandwidth isn’t used for purposes that have nothing to do with the company’s best interests?

Part III: A return to the mouth of madness

What twaddle. I firmly hold the beliefs that: a) any rapport that a company strives to cultivate with its staff is solely for the purposes of improving employee productivity and ensuring that there are no bad apples in the barrel, and b) employers do the barest minimum to make life easy, fulfilling and worth getting out of bed for, for their employees.

An example from my past. In another time, before I had formed into the malevolent and dangerous beast who writes this unholy page of lies and spite, I worked for a small company which sold telecommunications products on behalf of Optus. These products were marketed door to door. (Hehe.. can you imagine me working door to door? “Buy Optus or I’LL KILL YOU FOR BEING A STUPID PRAT!”) This company had several attributes which, while on the surface, seemed benign and even pro-actively friendly and sociable, I found to be distasteful and horribly commercial. We were assigned “team leaders” whose job was to “pep us up” to ensure we could “bust out” as many sales in a day as we could. We had morning pep talks to lift our spirits. So we could “bust out” as many sales in a day as we could. We were encouraged to make friends within the company, to go out drinking together, to become familiar and comfortable with each other. So that we could “bust out” as many godforsaken sales in a day as we could. We even had a team chant, which we would enthusiastically yawp at the beginning of each day. (Of course, I always claimed to be unable to remember it.)

I cannot understand why, but I was the only one working there who saw anything wrong with this. (Haw, haw haw haw haw haw! You weak-minded fools! Your marketing mind tricks don’t work on me!) My friends agree that these are clearly the human equivalent of empty lots, and good for little except as food once the apocalypse comes.

The other employees didn’t seem to notice the air of practical desperation about the boss as she handed down the day’s commandments. (They tried to make sales reps who performed badly do a little dance of shame. “It’s all about fun, don’t you see?”) I was thoroughly sickened by the entire thing.

To get to the point, the company was experimenting with doing all sorts of shallow psychological shite to us, with the transparent cover story that it was an attempt to improve our morale, because they thought it would make them more money. I believe that this example serves as a sterling demonstration of how companies’ care about their employees only in order to, a) seem like they care when really they don’t, and b) use shallow and petty psychology in a pathetic attempt to improve productivity, and ultimately line their own pockets.

Part IV: What’s the point, madman?

Anyone who is still trying to make sense of this essay (and I sincerely hope you give up) will have noticed that I have failed to address all of the points presented in part II. Strange as it might seem, this is all a part of my plan. Here is where the question is answered. The main unanswered question so far is; Should an employee not be obliged to use resources which the company is paying money for only in a way which benefits the company?

And here is where the three arguments meet. Anyone who has access to the internet is going to research random facts and popular gibberish which have piqued their interest. They may look up the meaning of a word which has been bothering them, try to research a rare and debilitating illness from which they suspect they are suffering, or attempt to obtain the history of the “Why did the boy fall off of the swing?” joke. It’s a part of being human, and in today’s world, easily comparable to glancing out the window and taking note of the interactions of the pigeons. They may wait until their lunch break to do this, but realistically, they are going to touch on several sites which have nothing to do with work even if they are researching something which does. Employers should make allowances for this, unless they are comfortable publishing the complete list of websites they visit on the pinboard.

If employers do monitor the actions of their staff while on the web, how can they assure me that the sole purpose of their gross indecency is to make sure that the employees are making productive use of the resources? How could they possibly argue to me that they are not trying to assess their employees’ attitudes, their interests, what particular flavour of kinky sex they enjoy, or whether they’re depressed, pensive, feeling like it’s time for a change, or in some other petty shallow way, a bad apple?

Part IV: The answer is in the technology

Despite my anti-establishmentarianism, I do recognise that genuine abuse of internet bandwidth does occur, and causes considerable losses to the companies which bear the burden of the cost. I can see that saying that a company has no right to monitor any aspect of an employee’s use of the network is not reasonable; it would be like granting an employee a company car and then not commenting when the car was never seen again, or instantly covered on all sides with unsightly scratches and dents, or painted fluorescent green and used for professional street racing. A company has some right to see where their valuable bandwidth is going. I just don’t think that they should be allowed to monitor the interests and actions of people who think they are in privacy, since the potential for abuse is matched only by an employer’s will to abuse it. An employer should set a boundary of “reasonable use”, and publish it for all the staff to see. The threshold should allow for a decent amount of trivial investigation. The amount of data downloaded by each person should be recorded. This is the only aspect of internet usage an employer ethically has a right to monitor: the hard and fast cost, not the content.

This is the only way that an employer can be protected against the abuse of employees deliberately or incidentally taking advantage of their employer’s internet connection, while simultaneously protecting the employees against being judged for something other than their productivity.