Euro ruling spreads panic over workers’ privacy

A screen grab from Dropbox (Dropping and dragging a photo into a folder) as seen on a computer or tablet. See PA Feature INTERNET Internet Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature INTERNET Internet Column. SUS-141003-151035003
A screen grab from Dropbox (Dropping and dragging a photo into a folder) as seen on a computer or tablet. See PA Feature INTERNET Internet Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature INTERNET Internet Column. SUS-141003-151035003

It may have gone unnoticed by some, but in recent weeks European judges have made a ruling which has certainly stirred up some reaction in the media.

The decision means employers can read workers’ private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours. It has made many sit up with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) saying a firm that read a worker’s Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work was within its rights.

In this case, judges said he had breached the company’s rules and that his employers were in their rights to check on his activities.

However, they added that such policies must also protect workers against unpoliced snooping.

The decision means that countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes Britain, have agreed to abide by the ECHR rulings that involve them. However, the impact on domestic courts differs. Under UK human rights laws, judges must take into account the ECHR’s decisions but are not bound by them.

The worker, an engineer in Romania, was subsequently sacked in 2007 after his employer had discovered that he was using Yahoo Messenger for personal contacts, as well as professional ones.

The court said it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

The man’s employer had banned its staff from sending personal messages at work and added that the employee had had prior warning that the company could check his messages.

The ruling means from now all employers should clearly explain rules that would allow them to check on their workers’ online activities.

A professor of internet law said after the ruling that the judgment was in line with UK law and in this case the employers said clearly that you are not to use the internet for anything but work.

This may seem harsh but, it is completely legal.

However, though, beyond the easy headlines it is best for the public to analyse this further.

Across the board bans on personal internet use whilst at work are still unreasonable because people retain the right to their own private life, even while working – especially in an age where people are working longer hours.

Currently, UK law allows proportionate checks on employees’ communications but this will need more clarity communicated to employees and adhered to by the employer.

As the world continues to develop and take into account the information age we live in, we at Bowsers believe the law will be tested more and more – certainly, interesting times ahead.