back to article Hard 'core'? Birmingham City Council's net filtering

Back in early July, the Birmingham Post reported on Birmingham City Council's adoption of online filtering software. It will block Council workers from accessing sites on subjects as diverse as smut, porn, cannibalism and witchcraft. But is it a sign of (bad) things to come for net users in public service? The story took a turn …

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Silver badge

Dumb question

>"If it's not illegal, is it really any business of an employer what an employee gets up to in their spare time?"

If they're using the employers resources then the simple and only answer is yes it is.

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Paris Hilton

Depends

Depends on if what you do in your spare time at work can affect the work network (stop downloading viruses your twonk!)

Also.. Think of the following headline:-

Gordon Browns Press PA is a satanist.

Ok, I'm not a hack, the sun could do a better job. But you get the picture.

Unfortunatly 90% of IT users at 100% of businesses and corporations are twonks..

Paris - cos she has more brains than most end users.

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It is their right

I would say yes. It is my business what you get up to in your spare time while working for me using my equipment, my building, my internet and everything that belongs to me. After all I pay your wages that pays your mortgage.

Even if the council says you are not allowed to use the internet for any reason whatsoever besides work, it is their right and every employer's right to do so.

You are paid to do a job, so do it.

It is not your "God given right" to use my time and/or the internet for your pleasure.

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Here's a radical idea

(I'm being sarcastic, but unfortunately it probably *is* a radical idea.)

Don't filter employees net access.

Prosecute them if they do anything illegal.

Instead of worrying about how much time they spend on the net; worry about whether they are getting the job done. If they're not getting the job done, does it actually matter why?

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Anonymous Coward

Solihull MBC use BlueCoat too.

Well, they did, when I worked in a school as a techie about two years ago.

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Dead Vulture

not illegal can still be inappopriate

Of course it's there business.

Nearly every large company in the country routinely blocks access to pornographic material.

It's not illegal to view pron, but doing so on your lunch break in the office is potentially offensive to others and quite reasonably banned from the workplace.

It's not illegal to have get pissed up, but you wouldn't do it sat at your desk, and if you did you'd expect to get fired.

Apart from the possibility that they've been a little too broad in what they were planning to block initially, this sounds like a complete non story.

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Silver badge

Don't do it at work.

"If it's not illegal, is it really any business of an employer what an employee gets up to in their spare time?"

Off site, away from the work place, no. At work using the facilities, computer systems, network, bandwidth, yes.

To restrict access to one site of a particular type as in the case of religious sites whilst allowing access to other more mainstream site of the same type is wrong. If a user can access a Christian site, then users should also be able to access a Satanist site, Hindu site, Muslim site, even the Scientology site etc.

Despite having full control of the network, proxy server and all logging/monitoring during my last employ, I personally never abused the systems. I had to enforce security policy, so it was only fair I led by example. I used to have a quiet word in the ear of those employees who did abuse their Internet access though. A nice little chat was in my experience always enough to stop the downloading of porn during break times and to enforce policy. No need for official warnings and other such bollocks. I found that those users who did abuse the freedom of Internet access they were given did behave after one of my informal chats and they knew that their every Internet access was logged. I also made sure they understood that I wouldn't allow them to take the piss.

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Happy

virgins not allowed

We've got web filtering as well ... and for a long time it wasn't possible to access the Virgin Atlantic website to lookup flight information etc due to the "sexual nature" of that website.

Also, a large selection of websites (mainly containing freeware etc) are banned under the category "productivity tools".

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Don't see the problem...

personally.

It is morally unacceptable to 'block' a select few *religious* sites, whilst allowing access to others. Everyone has the right to follow (or not to follow) whichever religion they choose of their own free will.

However.

The council could go the other way and 'block' all *religious* sites!

Would this be seen as fair?

Boils down to this;

Their equipment, their rules.

Pretty much like every other employer that allows their staff to use their equipment for internet access.

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Anonymous Coward

Gimme Gimme Gimme

"If it's not illegal, is it really any business of an employer what an employee gets up to in their spare time?"

Network services are a BUSINESS TOOL! A business is LIABLE for what happens on its network.

Do minicab firm employees believe they have a right to use the 2-way radio ? Do postal workers believe they have a right to free postage? Do employees expect free use of the phone during their breaks ?

Ban all non-business usage. It's the only way a business can protect itself.

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Bronze badge

Can have other unforseen consequences

I worked for a local authority a few years back and we had web filters set up to lock out sites that had content on various topics, which is all well and good except that local authorities are often involved with local projects to do with, for example, helping people with drug and alcohol problems. If your web filters come up with big red flashing "CONTENT FORBIDDEN" type pages when you are looking for partner organisation websites or even areas of your own, it can be just a little embarrassing.

Having a policy on internet abuse is clearly necessary and some level of filtering probably is needed on school and library computers ( although do you want even those to be filtering out sites that offer advice for people with drug or alcohol problems? ) but a local authority has resposibility for looking after local communities, which are full of adults who do all kinds of adult things, and they simply cannot allow prudish internal censorship to get in the way of that responsibility.

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Seems quite a common LA purchase then

Given that Glasgow City Council use Bluecoat products aswell as the others mentioned above.

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Coat

Not that severe

A lot of places have waaaay more strict policies. They use a "whitelist" of permitted sites (e.g. the company site, BBC etc) with no others permitted - many don't even allow webmail. To use a "blacklist" allows access to the majority of tubes, and the employer is perfectly entitled to say "no" to pretty much anything, as long as they can justify it, and they are even-handed. E.g. regards the "witchcraft" part - yes, they can block it on the grounds that a lot of Wicca-based sites have "artwork" that could be classed as porn (even though it's generally about as titillating as Page 3) rather than on any religious grounds, as they would then have to block the Co$ sites, which you can guarantee would end up involving a lawsuit...

Anyway, it's their internet, they can do what they like. If employees want to look at stuff that they can't see at work, they'll just have to do it at home. Like I do with my hardcore donkey-porn. Erm... I mean... oops. Coat please....

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Flame

"If it's not illegal, is it really any business of an employer...?"

Yes it bloody well is if their "spare time" involves using council facilities. The internet connectivity is being paid for by the council and therefore by extension the taxpayers. I doubt that the average council tax payer is thrilled at the prospect of subsidising the council employees' one-handed surfing. Moreover, an employer may be liable to legal action if the employees are using sites of a dubious nature. If they're surfing sites that are pornographic in nature, for instance, while they may not be illegal (and may not even be regarded by a lot of people as immoral), can you really NOT see the issue with doing that in the workplace? Try the following phrase on for size; "hostile working environment".

The mere suggestion that reminding users that using work-provided net access for illegal activities is forbidden should be regarded as overkill is just effing stupid. Such a statement should be a cornerstone of any organisation's acceptable use policy, as should statements regarding potentially objectionable material. Moreover, ANY responsible organisation puts in place technical measures to bolster and enforce such a policy. The suggestion on the part of Terry Sanderson that there is any doubt over the necessity for such measures merely illustrates his clue-deficiency.

Bluecoat's software may be American in origin, but all products of this type are capable of being tuned for local considerations; Bluecoat's own site notes that it has "Support for regional URL lists & custom URL database or categories", making a further nonsense of the "Oh noes! Its teh Mericans" objection.

Seriously, John, WTF were you thinking? I KNOW the NSS are gagging for a bit of public profile raising, but there's no excuse for this nonsense. Birmingham Council are a large public body, and they use web filtering, just like any other large public (or indeed private) organisation would or should. I guess "Public Body In 'Uses Common Bloody Sense Shock'" isn't such a great headline though, eh?

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Anonymous Coward

Websense

I beleive bluecoat uses the websense database? (might be wrong) We use that here and have no problems with any kind of american slant on the categorisation, there doesn't appear to be one.

It's the council's equipment, so yes they do have a right to know how it's being used. Would you give someone free reign of your home pc to do as they pleased on the internet? I certainly wouldn't as I don't want it left riddled with malware and the likes. If they want to surf dodgy websites they can do so from thier own laptop, however should they want to check on their ebay bid then feel free.

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Ian
Paris Hilton

Web Filtering: Say No

I've run an Internet connection for my employer since 1991, and a Usenet feed back into the mid-eighties at several sites. I've always had a `no filtering' agreement with the seniors, with an acceptable use policy we can use if we have to.

My logic has several strands.

Firstly, we're a big development shop, and a lot of our staff work all the hours God gives. Ergo, if we start limiting their access with the ``do it at home'' argument, they might it at home, which is bad for us.

Secondly, they'll find ways around it which means that instead of having clear accountability we have all sorts of malign security issues (outbound modems, remote proxies, etc) which we don't want.

Thirdly, it's so obviously silly as a policy that it brings the rest of our security posture into disrepute, and I don't want people going ``the web policy is silly and I circumvent it, so likewise...''

The issue about people wasting their time is a management issue. If someone isn't doing their job, their manager needs to deal with it, and it doesn't matter if the surface reason is Facebook, reading Tolstoy in the office or sitting in the canteen all day. It's not an IT function. The claims of exposure to lawsuits are wildly over-stated. And the filtering software is by and large set up for south of the Mason-Dixon line anyway.

In over twenty years of administering external networking, I've had a couple of cases which have crossed our radar as needing to be dealt with. Not worth some huge technical non-fix. And as my users don't believe me when I tell them there's no filtering on our web connections and assume we're watching everything anyway, it's self-policing...

Paris. Because her videos are presumably blocked.

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Paris Hilton

Duh!

"If it's not illegal, is it really any business of an employer what an employee gets up to in their spare time? "

I'm not sure that you thought that statement through.

When it's done on work machines, on work property, you're damn straight it is!

The fact that it's public money makes it ourbusiness as well as the employer's, too.

Paris, because even she could understand the concept of an employer having the right to manage their own resources.

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Black Helicopters

@Here's a radical idea

Exactly - whether they do their job properly is far more important than any other consideration. I don't care what they look at, and filtering(especially non-UK in origin) always seems to result in the Scunthorpe effect, eg the Virgin Atlantic fiasco quoted by AC earlier, or worse, words like 'clbuttic'

making an appearance.

Black helicopter - because filtering is another word for censorship - how'd you like your mail 'filtered' eh?

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Paris Hilton

So...

... is the Council using Bluecoat for anything other than Content Filtering? Such as Bandwidth Management, IM Filtering, User Agent Control, Policy Enforcement, etc? It is far too easy to blame a council for not using the cheapest solution for web filtering, but it is also careless not to find out the full intention of the solution.

PH - For she is all for Filtering out all things good.

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Thumb Up

No difference to business...

We use surf control, no sports sites, shite like MySpace is barred, Flickr is banned, as is nearly all audio and video streaming.

Why? Well try shoving down 200 crap filled Web 0.2 pages, a few dozen Youtube videos, couple of hundred flickr pages, BBC iplayer etc everyconstantly down your internet feed and see what happens to it.

We bought it in because crap like this was crippling our links.

What people forget is that BCC have 1000's of employee's, that's a lot of bandwidth required.

With these programs there is flexability, it is not a be all and end all.

I for example can get audio and video streams as it's part of my job role, but still can't get to photo sites, whereas marketing can.

The wife (who works for Solihull MBC) can access pretty much all sites, due to the nature of her work, where as many others can't get to anything other than the local intranet

So why the big shock horror going on, it's nothing new.

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Bronze badge

But what is illegal?

Apart from anything else, such as who is paying, The Register has too often reported on the uncertainty surrounding the actual limits set by recent UK laws.

Things such as a general ban on porn should cover some of these. Others are less obvious. But when downloading material from a site run by the US government can lead to terrorism charges, how can anyone involved assume they are safe?

What I do wonder is how Birmingham council would react to their internet connectivity supplier implementing something such as Phorm. At least some business-related internet use must involve sites carrying third-party advertising.

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Anonymous Coward

Non-Story

Employer has web AUP and enforces using Bluecoat. Where is the story?

As for selecting Bluecoat rather than another web filtering solution, it is up to the employer to choose whichever solution they think most appropriate, then put out a tender to supply that particular software and choose the cheapest quote. Otherwise every application we use at work would be the cheapest shareware offering available, regardless of performance or suitability.

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My company...

...bans all sites that have any relation to computer games at all times. Not sites where you can play games, just sites about games.

Which is odd considering that we are specifically allowed to use the internet for personal use during lunchbreaks, and sites such as eBay and Facebook are freely available at all times.

Do you I could claim that playing computer games is part of my religion and claim that I'm being discriminated against?

Could be worse though - a friend of mine works for the NHS and he can't even receive an email with a picture attached or embedded without it being blocked.

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3x2

American Filters??

"cannibalism and witchcraft"

Popular sites in Birmingham? Who knew?

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Paris Hilton

Total non-story.

Bluecoat, along with other categorization databases (like websense et al) provide as granular as possible categorisations and it's up to the organisation doing the blocking to choose what to block and what to allow. Wiccan sites are more likely to contain nudity than, say, the catholic church and it's a business decision rather than an IT decision to work out if that content is acceptable in the context of the site for users on the network to access.

Paris because, well, she contains a lot of nudity.

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Stop

Block The Register...

...and watch productivity go through the roof?

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Banning productivity tools...

...and council policy in general would seem to go hand in glove.

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Flame

"If it's not illegal...."

@ dervheid:

You say, "Their equipment, their rules". But it's not the case is it? This is a city council we're talking about. Not a private organisation. They don't actually "own" the network, it's resources, desktop machines etc.

@ Chris W, "If they're using the employers resources then the simple and only answer is yes it is." & @ Mark_T "Ban all non-business usage. It's the only way a business can protect itself."

So, you guys are at work right now, yeah?

Flame On.....

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Why this story?

Such a none story its untrue. About the only interesting thing is that they contemplated discriminating against atheists.

Every public organisation I've ever worked for has employed fairly draconian web controls. Why pick on Birmingham for a story?

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Happy

Google cache to the rescue!!

Easy

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Stop

eh?

"At no time some an employee do anything illegal, involves hacking....."

I may be missing something but isn't 'hacking' still illegal?

(/me goes back to dark room for legal fun....)

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Gold badge

Really?

".......difficult to sell to the local ratepayers a policy that allowed employees to sit around socialising all day."

More difficult than selling a policy that has 'em sitting around picking their noses all day how, exactly?

Oh and @Kane: Smug bastard! There I was, nodding my head in sagely agreement with the earlier comments and then your post came along and pissed on my picnic.

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Paris Hilton

try searching for tender (chicken) breasts

concern 1: "purchases out to tender (three suppliers) and buy the cheapest" ... ALWAYS means that you end up with a shite purchase.

concern 2: Not that the access is restricted - but that it is unevenly restricted. It is the employer's hardware and bandwidth - so just as I control the sites accessed at home, so too an employer should have the right to control the sites accessed at work. BUT - this crap about permitting some sites and denying others all from within a similar field eg - religeon... that's an abuse of human rights. All - or nothing. Alternatively... if cannibalism is banned - ALL food-related, cooking and recipe sites should also be banned. Talking of cannibalism... I sure could sink my teeth into Paris. Hmm - all or nothing again.

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Anonymous Coward

RE: Kane

"So, you guys are at work right now, yeah?"

Indeed, where in spite of my advice no AUP has been adopted at all. Besides getting the latest I.T. info is part of my job.

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Silver badge

@Kane

>So, you guys are at work right now, yeah?

Yes, but what's your point.

Flame off...

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b

@ It is not your "God given right" to use my time and/or the internet for your pleasure.

Posted Tuesday 5th August 2008 09:54 GMT

From home?

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Flame

Try living in Birmingham

Year on year, Birmingham CC swallows up the general West Midlands conurbation and releases green-belt land for development as it desperately tries to find extra tax payers to fund its ever-increasing bizarre mainly loony left-winged activities.

Do I find this story surprising? No. Do I wish Birmingham CC and it's councillors would disappear into a vortex? Yes. And yes, I do wish they would introduce more Draconian measures at the Council. Maybe I will see less waste of my hard-earned money which the Council and its employees appear to misappropriate as clearly demonstrated here.

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Not news

I work for a council. We filter internet access to block porn, gambling, executables and pages with excessive swearing. I thought it was fairly standard for large organisations.

I do agree though that staff spending too long online is a personnel problem, not a technical one.

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@ian

i totally agree. I had the misfortune to end up in a large US corporate for a while (unfortunate buyout) and simply couldn't get across to them that their banning of access to pretty harmless sites inspired me to work around all sorts of security.

As a card carrying atheist (or would be if the bha issued cards, damn them!) I wouldn't be surprised if the default u.s. list blocked access to atheist sites. they really don't like us.

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NT

At the risk of sounding like an echo...

Yes, I agree with other commenters: it certainly is the employer's business.

I'm fortunate to work for an organisation that has a pleasantly relaxed Internet use policy (at the moment - although it's only a matter of time until some fool abuses it and they tighten it up). I don't think any of the restrictions on us are unreasonable. We can't view porn; we can't access online gambling sites; Facebook and MySpace and such garbage are blocked (no loss there). Sites about gaming are predominantly barred - although as a Flight Sim enthusiast I was happy to find that I can access articles and editorials on the various sim sites. We can't download files or install anything without authorisation... Some blogs are barred, though not all. Religious or spiritual sites aren't blocked (I can access Witchvox, for example), but religious hate sites presumably would be.

None of this is at all unfair. We are, after all, there to work - but if we happen to clear the workload we're considered to be on downtime, provided we're ready to start up again when more work comes in.

But yes, it's certainly the business of a company or organisation what its machines are being used for. Remember that gizmo a while back that identified all the Wikipedia edits being made from computers at the CIA and the Vatican? And how we all laughed at the various Shadowy Conspirators being caught out making politically contentious changes? That the edits were probably made by individual employees in their own downtime (and, knowing the standards for Wikipedia, likely reflecting their own personal opinions) didn't stop people from assuming they were all officially sanctioned, did it? So yes, given that most big firms will have fixed IPs and so on, and since everything we do online is recorded and can - given the will - be traced, it's only fair that the employers have control over what their machines are used for and what the users do.

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Kev

Don't worry.....

Birmingham's ICT is managed by Captia.... its not going to work anyway.

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Anonymous Coward

Not as big a story as people think

The issue that the NSS raised a few days ago now is a simple one: if Christians can access websites about their religious beliefs then that should extend to those of other religions or indeed non-religions.

Quite whether BCC is following best practices when it comes to the policy, its content, monitoring and method of enforcement is a different but interesting matter.

Any decent web monitoring and filtering software is customisable to the needs of the business using it. If you're a plumber, for example, then words like "cock", "butt" and "screw" are going to appear on pages dealing with plumbing equipment. Sounds like the people responsible for the IT provision are just being lazy and not bothering to tweak the filters so they are more appropriate.

Someone I know who works for BCC says the internet provision is s***e anyway so there's not much chance of anyone getting anywhere.

If you want to download porn or filthy stuff like Manchester United crap then do it at home. Don't use the network I'm employed to look after for that stuff. Council Tax payers do deserve to know that their money (which pays for the council and its services) is being used sensibly and that the people who are supposed to serve them aren't cracking one off over some flash video of an E list "celebrity" flashing her bare ar5e.

And yes, I've had people sacked for downloading porn and spending more time chatting to friends than working. You're paid to do a job, not spend all day bablling inanely about Big Brother or some other mindless garbage.

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Anonymous Coward

council software purchasing

"Public authorities are required to put software purchases out to tender (three suppliers) and buy the cheapest."

That seems like a gross simplification. My understanding is that this only applies to tenders that are over a certain figure. And you wouldn't just buy the cheapest, instead you'd score each tender on a set of criteria (one of which would be price), and then opt for the highest scoring one.

And how do we know Birmingham didn't go out to tender for this? You seem to imply because it's an American company, they can't have tendered. Of course, Bluecoat have UK sales reps.

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Flame

You're all offending me!

So let's get this straight: BCC doesn't allow employees to surf during working hours. Sounds sensible. I'd rather they were doing the work they were paid for during those times and weren't, phoning, surfing, w*nking, writing novels or pretty anything that I as a ratepayer didn't approve of.

Then they down tools and clock off for lunch.

At which point all the band width considerations that readers are posting about could be important and if they were, then they would have a policy of "no surfing".

But obviously they aren't concerned about bandwidth. Because they DON'T have a policy of no surfing.

What they do have is a policy which says: yeah, go ahead and surf. So long as WE get to pick and choose where you can and can't surf. And like the man says: illegal is probably a bad place to surf.

But if its not illegal and its not a bandwidth issue, what the frick has it got to do with the council where I surf?

Oh dear. Of course. I might "offend" someone. Like I don't get offended by some of the stupid groups set up on facebook, or by the word "appropriate" or by articles in the Guardian by feminists who say that they "hate men" (check it out....one exactly like that about ten days ago).

But if the Council is not going to talk to me and allow me to stick my "offend-list" into the pot...why must I kowtow to everyone else's.

Just two boxes, really. Is it legal? Check. Is it causing bandwidth concerns? Check.

Then everything else is no-one else's business.

Flame - cause I am appalled at the sheep on here so bought into the "if it offends we'll take it down culture".

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Thumb Up

@ Chris W

My point?

Are you using your employers resource to read this comment? If the answer is yes, then it's your employers business. Like it's my employers business that I'm writing this comment. (not that I care much...)

@ TeeCee. Sorry if your cheese sandwiches taste funny ;o)

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Silver badge

Get on with your work

Considering council tax (that which pays for these people to surf the 'net) goes up by more than inflation every year - a trend that shows no sign of slowing down, my advice would be to cut their internet PRIVILEGES completely.

I do not feel the need to pay for them to be goofing around, when it's taken them since February to change the 3 streetlights in my little road. (Two done, one still not working).

I'm all for them using websites to provide access to council functions, where it lowers costs - but when all my enquiries simply get responded to by a robotic "thanks you for your communication" and nothing else, I can't help wondering what they spend their time doing - now I know.

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Bronze badge
Paris Hilton

Who pays for the pipe?

This has always been pretty clear to me, for as long as companies have been starting to get connected to the 'net, and people have started surfing using those connections.

As far as I can see it Internet access is provided - and PAID FOR - by companies and organisations in order for their employees to do their job. Therefore it only needs to be suitable for that purpose.

If any employees don't like that they they and really want to visit any of the prohibited sites, they only need put their hands in their OWN pockets, buy a computer and any one of the myriad of home Internet access products available, if they don't already have one. Then they can surf how and where they so wish!

Paris 'cos she pays her own way too ;-)

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Flame

in a previous life

At a previous employer there were no restrictions on browsing, we just published the access logs on the intranet for everyone to see, sorted in various ways. If you could take the ridicule you could browse anything...

Get your work done and no problems, don't and being in the top5 would need some explaining :) Seemed to work well.

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In their offices, they can ban what they damn well please

Employers have a duty to provide services such as toilets. They do NOT have a duty to provide free internet access to staff. Some sites will be banned for illegality, some for productivity, some for malware, and some BY MISTAKE. Yes, these can happen!

Again there is the view that "X is not perfect, the alternative to X is doing nothing (which is worse), therefore we'll do nothing"

As long as filtering doesn't interfere with someone's job (ie unlike the person who couldn't access drug addiction support sites) then I don't see a problem with it. And it might cause problems for staff using their (permitted) personal access during breaks - but tough. It's not a right, would they be happier with a "no personal browsing AT ALL" rule?

Now libraries etc. are a different matter...

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Paris Hilton

Dear Kane

You must be your hairdresser's favourite customer, as you appear quite adept at splitting hairs.

You really must get them to try a different shampoo though, as your current one seems to be affecting your ability to comprehend the basic points being made;

The council have 'ownership' of the equipment, in so much as even if they do not purchase and operate it directly, then *they* pay whoever does this on their behalf. This gives them the obligation to the good council taxpayers of Birmingham to ensure that, as far as is possible, this equipment is not being *misused*.

Now, we can all argue until we're blue in the face about what constitutes *misuse*, but I do believe that BCC have have the absolute right to decide what purpose *their* equipment is being used for, regardless of it's legality. As I would expect of any organisation/company.

She gets it, you don't!

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