Fear of Lawyers

The golden rule I learned first is “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

If you’re one of the millions of people who use the Internet at work, you know workplace rules for Internet use are really quite restrictive: no games, no sex, no personal business, and definitely nothing that might get your company into trouble.

Most people routinely ignore these rules, just as they go 75 mph on the freeway and take company pens home for the kids. Companies like Elron Software and Websense push companies to “crack down” by monitoring employee Internet use.

Elron recently commissioned a second study of this “problem” by NFO Interactive and found (surprise) that “employees’ personal use of corporate network resources is rising.” Elron President Ray Boelig warned that “exposure is shifting from web to email,” adding that employees were passing inappropriate messages and confidential information to outsiders. (Here’s another surprise: Elron makes a program aimed at that market, too.)

Under pressure from big-money musical acts like Metallica, universities are now banning such “abusive” programs as Napster. Lawsuits might next be used to rid colleges of Gnutella and, in consequence, move more to buy programs like Elron’s that monitor Internet use and let those in charge “crack down” on violators of company or university policy.

I have to wonder, however, whether companies and colleges are acting wisely. Monitoring, controlling and disciplining those who use the Internet “inappropriately” sounds like a good idea, but is it really? How active will your employees be in using the Internet for legitimate reasons if they’re constantly looking over their shoulders, wondering if what they’re doing is being monitored and might (later) be misinterpreted.

This is especially true on the charge that people are passing confidential information in emails. Do companies routinely monitor their telephone networks, recording what employees say and firing those who say the wrong things? If they had such a tool would they use it? So why do the same thing regarding the Internet?

The obvious answer is: Because we can. The second answer is: Because someone might sue if we don’t.

I’ve decided that “someone might sue” is the biggest threat to liberty Americans face. The fear of lawyers has us all tied up in knots. People are afraid of using hyperlinks because someone might sue. We scour servers for copyrighted content because someone might sue. We limit use of the Internet (and limit its power for good) because someone might sue.

When I worked at CMP Media some years ago, we had a project called Gulliver, later released as Netguide Live. Well, lawyers are the Lilliputians of our time, tying people down with ropes made of paper, moving many to react “pro-actively” in fear of them.

If the promise of the Net turns into a chimera, know now who killed it. Of all the Republican promises being made to Net entrepreneurs, Gov. Bush’s promise of denying people use of the courts through tort reform may prove the most enticing.