Chris Woolfrey — FSFE UK Team Member

Explorations and Documentations

Should All the Data on Your Work Computer Count as Company Data?

N.B. The following is really a set of questions than answers; if anybody knows the actual answers, please get in touch…

The computer is, among other things, a tool; perhaps more so in the workplace than anywhere else. And like many workplace tools — you only need to think about the factories of the 19th century — the computer is a place of discussion and power politics in the relationship between employees and employers, because it’s used as a piece of equipment. And it’s in the best interests of both parties, in that regard, to have control of the use of that equipment.

Indeed, most of us know, have probably experienced, and have certainly heard from others, that the boundaries between the “public and private” as well as “professional and non-professional spheres” have, if not legally then socially, gone some way in breaking down. Plenty of workers, from employers to employees, check social media networks and personal email accounts daily; plenty choose to surf the Web, if it hasn’t been locked off from them, and look at anything from The BBC and Wikipedia for news and info to using Grooveshark or for music.

But We All Procrastinate from Time to Time…

In some companies that break down has been tacitly accepted: we all do it, and as long as we get our work done, a little distraction isn’t destructive. But from the point of view of data freedom, of software use, and of worker’s rights in relation to the tools they use to complete their work and  live out their lives,  the legal or contracted side of things remains unchanged.

For example, standard employment contracts, at least in the U.K., will often contain statements like the following:

  • Any computer programs or software should be given to the company, undamaged and unaltered, if you leave the company
  • If you use a company IT system it is the property of that company
  • Those systems are allowed to be monitored
  • As soon as you use any of that system you understand that the company owns it.

Now of those statements, each notes quite explicitly that any actions made by an employee relating to that tacit agreement are subject to punishment on behalf of the people who employ them. Which, if you think of the historic relationship between employees and employers, all seems perfectly fair: you work for them, right?

Depending on your political persuasion of course, you’ll believe that statement to be fair or unfair; and plenty, probably more unfashionably, would say unfair. But all that aside, and from the point of view of computer use, and (as far as I can get outside the realm of politics) of software, and who owns it, these statements seem less than clear.

Who Owns What?

Let’s take the fact that ‘all IT systems belong to the company’. I’m sure the legal position on this, in terms of best practice and in previous cases, is quite clear, but it doesn’t seem clear to me.  For example, it I was writing this at work, using Firefox as my browser, can it be said that what I’m doing, let alone what I’m using, is owned by the company? Surely Firefox own Firefox?

That leads on to the question of systems being monitored because they are subject to company guidelines. Yes they are, if you own them (as most contracts will relate the clauses, to my knowledge, to ownership), but Firefox operates under the Mozilla Public License so it can’t be owned by the company. As a result, presumably, anything I chose to do on it, strictly speaking, would not be subject to monitoring. Problem solved: the rights fall on the side of the employee. Surely?

If You Own It, They Will Bow

Ah, wait. But when you use the system you recognise that the company owns the property, by definition of using the system. This must be the get-out clause…

I use the company’s hardware. I’m sitting on my workstation, which belongs to the company because it is an “IT system”, so what I do with it, and on it, belongs to the company.

Rights fall on the side of the employer: case closed. But then we come to the final statement, that the system, including the software on it, can’t be modified or unaltered at the point that you leave the company; that the company own that software.

Makes sense, I guess: I do it on their workstation. But then that’s the beauty of Free Software: it puts power in the hands of the many rather than the few, and in so doing, grants power to employees and employers alike. After all, how can something which by its very nature escapes ownership be owned by a company, let alone an employee?

I would presume that copyright laws like the GPL, which necessitates that any works created under it must by law be modifiable, alterable, and Free, beats any employer’s guidelines in relation to software that uses GPL, or something like it? An employer, presumably, cannot by law dictate how an employee uses that software: it isn’t their legal right. Free Software, then,  can offer a genuine mandate to the employee over a computer which, generally, isn’t seen to be controlled in any way by them. That’s why so many people end up using it: Free Software grants the user power, not just Freedom. In one very important way,  it facilitates, in the words of Geoffrey Nunberg ‘the opening up of the right to speak’. It grants the chance, to people who use it, to act.

Into the Lion’s Jaws

Of course, on the flip side of that, I’d be interested to know more about how all this works in relation to proprietary licensing: if a company uses Windows, or Microsoft Office or whatever, surely they can’t equally claim that any use of IT systems is subject to their ownership, as they themselves enter into an agreement with Microsoft, which states that it is the property of Microsoft, when they buy the license.

But is it really just a matter of who owns the hardware? Is all of this rendered completely redundant simply because a company writes it into a contract and the employee signs it?Are all the virtues of Free Software that are just celebrated defunct, in the face of that contract?

Even outside these problems, I haven’t even begun to think about the irony of fighting off an employer (who you know and in plenty of cases trust) only to use a computer to log-in at a social network, where the same monitoring processes and ownership problems are no doubt occurring.

Anyway. On the subject of computers and the workplace, and of worker’s rights, Johan Söderberg presented a really interesting talk at FSCONS 2010. You can watch it over on FSCONS’ Vimeo profile.

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