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Federal Organizations Reported Developing Guidance for Their Internet Activities

Many federal organizations reported having developed guidance related to their Internet activities. Of the 42 federal organizations responding, 28 reported having organizationwide guidance for their employees' use of Internet resources, covering activities such as sending and receiving e-mail and accessing or "surfing" WWW sites on the Internet. Twenty-one federal organizations also reported having developed guidance on establishing and maintaining WWW sites.

Most Internal Guidance States That Government-Provided Internet Resources are for Official Purposes Only

There is no governmentwide policy or regulations that specifically govern employee use of the Internet. While most federal organizations that have guidelines prohibit any use of government-provided Internet resources for nonofficial purposes, a few organizations allow limited personal use. It was beyond the scope of our review to assess the appropriateness of these guidelines.

Twenty-eight federal organizations reported having organizationwide guidance for their employees' use of government-provided Internet resources, and five additional federal organizations reported that they were drafting guidance. Our review of this guidance showed that it varied greatly. Some organizations had a notice displayed on their employees' computer screens reminding employees that the Internet resources were for official use only. Other federal organizations had issued several pages of guidance detailing appropriate use, inappropriate use, and penalties for inappropriate use. Although we summarized only the organizationwide guidance of the federal organizations, we noted that major components of those organizations frequently had also developed guidance specifically addressing employees' use of government-provided Internet resources.

Our review showed that for 25, or 89 percent, of the 28 federal organizations having guidance, the guidance specifically stated that the government-provided Internet resources were for official use only and/or prohibited specific activities. Some of the agencies' guidance referred to 5 C.F.R. 2635.704,8 which states that employees shall protect and conserve federal property and shall not use it for other than authorized activities, as the basis for their guidelines. Examples of nonofficial or prohibited activities stated in the guidance of the various federal organizations included playing computer games; gambling; using abusive language in either public or private messages; displaying and printing material or images that are sexually explicit, discriminatory, or intended for harassment purposes; pursuing personal interests, such as hobbies, avocations, or alternative lifestyles; and pursuing private commercial activities, among other actions.

In contrast, the guidance of three federal organizations permitted employees to use their government-provided Internet resources for incidental personal use. While these organizations allow personal use, the guidance still identified certain activities that are prohibited.

While it was beyond the scope of our review to contrast federal practices with the private sector, we noted a recent study conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., which concluded that formal, written Internet policies were rare among U.S. employers it surveyed.9 It reported that just 10 percent of the companies surveyed that used the Internet had developed written policies that govern employees' Internet activities. The study noted, however, that many respondents reported plans to develop formal policies in the near future.

Half of Federal Organizations Have Guidance for Establishing and Maintaining WWW Sites

Twenty-one, or 50 percent, of the 42 federal organizations reported having developed organizationwide guidance for establishing and maintaining WWW sites, and three additional federal organizations reported that they were drafting guidance. Again, this guidance varied widely among the federal organizations. In some cases, the guidance was a "how to" manual on the design of pages for a WWW site. In other cases, the guidance was an expression of basic policy covering issues such as security, which sites are inappropriate for the organization to "link to," and who within the organization can establish or approve establishing WWW sites.

We limited our review of this guidance to determining whether the guidance stated who within a federal organization could approve content being placed on the WWW. Our review showed that the guidance of 18 federal organizations stated who within an organization could approve WWW page content.

In July 1996, OMB informally circulated preliminary draft guidance to a limited number of agencies on many of the issues surrounding the use of the WWW. OMB officials told us that the agencies raised a number of issues and concerns about the draft guidance, and it had not yet been issued as of May 20, 1997. Among the issues raised by OMB in its draft guidance was how federal organizations' WWW sites complied with provisions of the Privacy Act, Paperwork Reduction Act, Federal Records Act, and Freedom of Information Act. It was beyond the scope of our review to evaluate the guidance of federal organizations with regard to these issues.

8 This provision is included within the standards of ethical conduct for employees of the executive branch issued by the Office of Government Ethics. See 5 C.F.R. Part 2635.

9 Special Survey Report: Employers on the Internet, Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Jan. 2, 1997.

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