Are work web blockers a waste of time?

Even the seemingly innocuous sites can avert attention from work. Take Google, for example, which introduced a playable Pac-Man doodle to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary earlier this summer. The BBC reported this boosted the average amount of time spent on Google from 11 to 36 seconds.

Are work web blockers a waste of time?

By extrapolating that across Google’s 504 million unique users a day (each conducting 22 searches), this equalled an increase of 4.8 million hours or as much as £80 million in lost productivity in a single day.

Even the most draconian of bosses would probably agree that’s a bit of a statistical stretch, but do businesses have a point when arguing against personal web use in the workplace?

Bad for business

Companies clearly don’t want to waste money on unnecessary bandwidth, especially in times of recession, but what kind of pressure is the average IT manager under to cut down on employee slacking?

Franklyn Jones is a director at Palo Alto Networks and argues that businesses are dealing with a new generation of users that have grown up with the internet, which has become their primary tool for communication, information and collaboration. “When these users are at work they expect – in fact, they demand – the same internet freedom they have outside the office,” Jones insisted.

When these users are at work they expect – in fact, they demand – the same internet freedom they have outside the office

Ian Abbott, a consultant at Orange Business Services, agrees and suggests that web content filtering products can “reduce, if not halve, employee surfing” when used in conjunction with an acceptable use policy (AUP), and “implemented in conjunction with HR and signed-off by senior management before being deployed.”

Inevitably, the very act of trying to save money on lost bandwidth comes at a cost to businesses. The actual bottom line of maintaining and administering a content filtering solution varies, and depends on the size of the business, the type of filter deployed and several other factors. Which isn’t to say the cost is necessarily a high one, considering that secure internet access is already a fundamental business requirement.

As Ed Rowley from M86 Security told us, “managing personal use is a simple extension of this and requires little additional cost or management beyond what would be required to enable secure business-related usage. Proper web filtering and blocking should now be seen as a business enabler that helps reduce overall costs rather than adding to them.”

Solution worse than the problem?

Some might argue that a “solution” can still cost more than the “problem” it’s meant to fix, although Ed Rowley isn’t among them. “In terms of risk assessment, adopting and enforcing a policy has many benefits,” he said. “Companies can certainly reduce their legal and regulatory liabilities by taking reasonable steps to apply security. They can also benefit from avoiding embarrassing data leaks by preventing private, secret, sensitive or inappropriate information from being posted.”

Assuming that a business has done the sums and decided that content filtering or blocking makes sense, how effective are they in day-to-day usage? Rowley admits that it’s “often difficult to differentiate between legitimate business usage and personal usage”, but reckons a decent content filtering solution helps by taking context as well as content into consideration.

Misguided and ineffective

No matter how intelligent the filter, there are those who believe they’re a waste of time and effort – and have the evidence to support their claims. Palo Alto Networks’ Franklyn Jones insists that “the very idea of trying to apply web filtering to control end users is misguided and ineffective,” not least because internet-savvy employees can easily circumvent them to get access to the applications and sites they want.

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