Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Using Your Office Computer to Access Pornography

Last July the Florida Supreme Court announced it was going to reprimand Judge Brandt C. Downey for, among other things, habitually “viewing pornographic websites” on the computer in his chambers. The case is Inquiry Concerning a Judge (Florida Supreme Court SC 05-2228) (July 13, 2006), 2006 WL 1911389.

In its opinion, the Florida Supreme Court also notes that the judge’s “pervasive practice of viewing pornography” from the computer in his chambers “resulted in frequent computer viruses infecting” the computer. This, in turn, meant that courthouse staff had to remove the viruses from his computer.

The opinion notes that “on at least two occasions, courthouse personnel were unwittingly exposed to pornographic images when they reported” to the judge’s chambers to remove viruses from his computer. The opinion also notes that the judge “repeatedly ignored e-mail warnings . . . from court technology staff” which advised him “of the potential risk to the entire computer network due to [his] viewing of certain websites.”

The Florida Supreme Court found that these allegations, if true, violated Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon 1 basically says that a judge should maintain and enforce “high standards of conduct” and should personally observe those standards himself or herself. The judge admitted to violating Canon 1, and this violation became part of the basis for his being reprimanded.

I find this case interesting for several reasons, one of which is that what the judge was doing on his office computer is, I suspect, far from unusual in the American workplace. We are given computers to use at work, and I think the line between “their” computer (which is to be used only officially, for company business) and “our” computer tends to blur in our minds . . . so we think nothing of using “their” computer for “our” own purposes.

(Indeed, I am doing that right now – I am writing this blog post on the laptop in my office at the law school where I teach. Writing a blog post is definitely not as far afield from my employment obligations as the judge’s looking at porn in his chambers, but it’s pretty clearly not in my job description, either.)

A lot of this is inevitable. We spend a lot of time at work – are we supposed to be offline for the entire time, or is it reasonable for us to use our work computers (and our work email addresses) for “personal” reasons?

That question raises a lot of interesting issues. Some of the things we do with “their” computers while we’re at work don’t hurt anyone or anything, but some of what we do can “harm” the company we work for. The judge was exposing the court’s computer system to viruses. He was not doing this intentionally, but his activity still had that effect. It doesn’t seem as if the court computer system was seriously compromised by the viruses, but the viruses could have interfered with other employees’ ability to use the system, and the court may have incurred expenses in having the viruses removed.

What happened to the judge raises another issue: He was disciplined because the judicial system found that his recreational use of his office computer was not consistent with the standards of behavior we require of judges. What standards, I wonder, do we require of the rest of us?

Do I have an obligation to use my office computer in a way that minimizes its exposure to viruses and other evils? If so, how far does that obligation extend – am I supposed to educate myself about the dangers that lurk online so I can more effectively avoid them? Or is the security of my computer and the system it is linked to purely the concern of our computer staff?

More importantly, perhaps, how am I supposed to know? The judge got into trouble because he was bound by an external set of standards – the Code of Judicial Conduct. What, if anything, is supposed to put the rest of us on notice as to the responsibility, if any, we have to use our office computers in a “responsible” manner?

1 comment:

Dave said...

How about common sense, seasoned by the Golden Rule?

The notion that I must be "put on notice" so as become responsible for acting reasonably leads all kinds of bad behavior. I can then do anything I want to do until caught and notified that there is a new behavioral line. It creates an adversarial relationship between employer and employee: "You didn't tell me that." "Well, you know now." The employee and employer now eye each other warily rather than work together reasonably and responsibly to get to a common goal.

Of course I have an obligation to learn about online or other risks associated with my work whether I am the employer or employee. When I see a problem, whether I am the boss or the worker, I have an obligation to tell the other so that the problem can be solved and avoided in the future.