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Bosses’ right to snoop on staff emails is an invasion of privacy and ignores the way we work

Bosses can look at whatever we do on work devices, as long as this policy is communicated to employees first. Is this a step too far?

Since Edward Snowden revealed the existence of internet surveillance programmes such as XKeyScore, Prism and Tempora, there have been many discussions of digital snooping and its implications for privacy, freedom and civil rights.

Public discourse has focused on the dangers of the emergence of a surveillance-industrial-complex, in which secret services, global communications corporations and private security companies collaborate.

This focus has somewhat distracted public attention from another form of snooping that affects many of us in everyday life: employee surveillance. A recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has alerted us of the developments in this realm of surveillance: a Romanian engineer complained to the ECHR about his dismissal in light of his personal use of Yahoo Messenger on a company device during working hours. He had not just messaged professional contacts, but also his family.

The ECHR rejected the complaint that the company’s monitoring of the employee’s communications violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects everyone’s “right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.

Who’s watching you work?

Companies’ surveillance of employees’ online communication is widespread. According to a survey of 300 company recruiters, 91 per cent of British employers check job applicants’ social media profiles. Another poll showed that in the US, 66% of employers monitor their employees’ internet browsing and about a third have fired workers for internet misuse.

But why is there so much employee surveillance today? Companies in general tend to favour the surveillance of communications of job applicants, their workplace and staff, property, consumers and competitors in order to ensure control over the production, sale and consumption of their commodities, thereby guaranteeing the accumulation of capital. Surveillance and control are inherent features of capitalism.

The key point in the ECHR’s ruling is that there has been “no violation of Article 8 of the convention” because the court found “that it is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours”.

It is important to note that the ECHR’s judgment was taken acknowledging that the company monitored two Yahoo Messenger accounts of the dismissed employee, one used for professional and one used for private purposes. The implication is that employers are legally allowed to monitor all employee communications during working time on company-owned devices.

Always on the job

The ECHR’s legal judgment seems to disregard changes to working life in the digital age that do not allow us to strictly separate working and leisure time. Under the conditions of neoliberal digital capitalism, the boundaries between working and leisure time, the workplace and the home, labour and play, production and consumption, and the private and the public have become blurred and liquefied.

Employees tend to also access and answer e-mails at home as well as on the way to work and back home. Many people search for job-related information on the internet out of regular working hours at home, in cafés, on the train – anywhere you care to imagine. Social media profiles often have no clearly private or professional character because social media are convergence media – our online contacts and communication involve people from different social contexts, including our family life and friendship groups and involve our working life, politics, civil society engagement and the rest.

The general tendency is that there is a 24/7 always-on culture that benefits companies’ profits and turns ever more leisure time into labour time.

Given that under such conditions many employees tend to complete professional tasks out of regular working hours, it is ethically unreasonable to grant employers the legal right to monitor all employee communications on company-owned or other devices. It is also not reasonable to assume that all employees can carry around multiple privately and company-owned laptops, mobile phones and tablets that they use either for personal or professional purposes with separate private and professional social media and email accounts at clearly defined and separated times of the day in order to communicate with neatly separated groups of private and professional contacts.

Need for flexibility

An employee messaging a personal friend via social media on a device owned by the company he works for, using either his personal or professional ID, is taking a break from work. Given the complexity of today’s economy and the emergence of flexible working times, it is feasible to assume that employees’ breaks also need to be flexible. Company rules, regulations and legislation need to be brought up to date with these complexities.

The unfortunate reality seems, however, to be that many employers, legislators and judiciaries assume that large parts of the day have to be seen as labour time that employers are allowed to monitor. In my view, such surveillance practices do not merely undermine the right to privacy and the right to private and family life, but also the “right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours”. They furthermore advance a workplace culture of suspicion, distrust and control that harms both employees and companies.

Adequate protection of workers’ rights in the digital age is a key political task. It can only be achieved by strengthening existing protections at the European and global level in the interest of working people, not by undermining such rights in the interest of corporations. In the digital age, labour time continues to be a strongly contested realm of human life.

The Conversation

Christian Fuchs is a Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times