New Privacy Bill Protects Internet Use

Gretchen Gallen
SACRAMENTO — A controversial new bill is being passed on to the California State Assembly that would require employers to inform staff members that they monitor email content and Internet activity.

Bill SB 1841, authored by Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey, has passed through the Senate three years in a row and was vetoed each time. However, Bowen is shopping the bill around the state Capitol again, at a time when privacy issues in the workplace have never been more relevant.

"Sen. Bowen believes it is still a necessary bill and we have a new governor so perhaps we will have a new outlook on the importance of the bill," a representative for Bowen told XBiz. "Our current governor certainly comes form a profession where guarding one's privacy is very important."

Bill SB 1841 would give employees the same privacy protections they have when they talk on the telephone at work and it would prohibit employers from engaging in electronic monitoring without first providing notice that it is part of company policy.

The bill requires employers to explain what will be monitored, but it doesn’t require employers to tell employees each time they read an email or check an employee’s whereabouts.

Devices covered under the terms of the bill include computers, telephones, wires, radio, cameras, or electromagnetic, photo-electronic, or photo-optical system.

“Just because your boss owns the computers and pays for the Internet access doesn't mean he should have the right to spy on you without telling you, any more than owning the telephone and paying the phone bill should allow him to eavesdrop on your personal phone conversations without letting you know,” said Bowen.

Existing law prohibits an employer from recording an employee telephone call without informing them first.

"This doesn't prevent a company from monitoring its employees or from firing people who misuse company equipment," Bowen continued. "It just says if you monitor your employees you've got to tell them it's company policy."

The bill was approved by the state Senate in a 23-11 vote and will next be assigned to an Assembly committee by June.

The American Management Association’s 2003 Email Rules, Policies and Practices Survey found that 52 percent of U.S. companies engage in some form of email monitoring of employees, compared to only 14.7 percent in 1997.

According to a 2003 survey of 192 companies conducted by the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Massachusetts, 92 percent of employers monitor employee email and the Internet use.