An employee’s Internet usage, whether at home or at work, has the potential to expose the employer to legal claims, including sexual harassment, hostile work environment and defamation. Where the allegedly offensive conduct occurs on a company-provided computer system, employers may be especially vulnerable to legal claims stemming from the behavior of their employees.
However, a recent California Court of Appeals case indicates that there are limits on an employer’s responsibility for its employees’ Internet usage, even where such usage occurs on a company-provided Internet platform. In Delfi no v. Agilent Technologies,4 plaintiffs sued Agilent Technologies for negligent and intentional infl iction of emotion distress stemming from anonymous threats allegedly made to them by an Agilent employee over Agilent’s computer systems. The Court of Appeals held that Agilent was immune from suit under the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”), however, which encourages Internet service providers to engage in self-regulation of any offensive or illegal Internet usage by its users, and thus immunizes Internet service providers from lawsuits arising out of such conduct. According to the Court, by providing Internet access to its employees through its computer systems, Agilent qualifi ed as a “service provider” under the CDA, and thus was immunized from claims arising out of its employees’ Internet usage.
Most employers engage in some sort of monitoring of the Internet usage occurring on company-sponsored Internet servers. Despite the holding in Agilent, employers should be mindful that they may be at risk for legal claims arising from their employees’ use of company-provided Internet usage where an employer is on notice that such conduct is taking place. In order to minimize these risks, employers should adopt a comprehensive Internet usage policy that puts its employees on notice of acceptable and unacceptable standards of conduct with respect to their Internet usage.