Get your networks ready for the 2008 election campaign now

Concerns include bandwidth consumption, lost productivity, security breaches, increased spam and legal liability

It may seem a bit early for 2008 political campaigns to be targeting voters -- your users -- via e-mail, blogs and video, but experts say it's the perfect time for IT to prep their networks and remind users about acceptable use of Internet resources.

"I don't think most IT organizations know what's coming," says Paul Myer, president and chief operating officer of 8e6 Technologies in Orange County, Calif.

Myer contends that many companies are naive when it comes to allowing users access to political content, including Web sites, streaming video, and downloaded clips and blogs. But he feels it will only take one public lawsuit or their network to come to a standstill because of constrained resources to make them understand the myriad problems political content poses.

Recently, YouTube Inc., which hosts video and other new media, announced its "YouTube You Choose '08" voter education initiative.

The goal, according to YouTube, is to enable political candidates to get their message out to "millions of potential voters."

YouTube hopes the online hub will allow users to interact with the candidates and each other through access to videos, speeches, informal chats, behind-the-scenes footage and other material.

YouTube cites Hillary Clinton as an example of a candidate who has embraced the Web. They quote her as saying, " 'As I said on my blog, I believe that the Web is not only creating new forms of political dialogue but offering a new wave of opportunity for all Americans. Having a strong online presence at sites like YouTube, one of the most active communities on the Web, and on hillaryclinton.com, allows me to use online video to share my views with Americans on important issues as part of our ongoing conversation.' "

But as candidates and content generators try to attract more voters -- while they're on the company dime -- corporate networks could feel the strain.

Most surfing is at work

"A majority of the consumption of online material -- video or blog posts or even just in general -- is done at work," says Jay Adelson, co-founder of social content site Digg.com.

For example, John Edwards' announcement that he was entering the presidential race was carried via streaming media on a Thursday.

Myer says companies will face significant problems as voters become engaged in the campaign season, including a rise in bandwidth consumption, lost productivity, security breaches, increased spam and legal liability.

Many political sites, such as my.barackobama.com, ask users to input their e-mail addresses to be part of their online community. Voters who use their work addresses put their companies at risk for spam and security breaches.

Adelson says he's seen a significant change in this arena though. "Five years ago, users didn't know they weren't supposed to use their work addresses for personal stuff. Now, they're more sophisticated. We don't see a lot of corporate addresses on Digg. A majority of our users' e-mail addresses are from services such as Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo," he says.

This is especially true in industries that are highly regulated such as financial services and health care. "If you're in a sector where those restrictions are front and center, users tend to have an alternate public account," he says.

But Adelson admits that some companies are not so savvy and "employees should be reminded not to use their e-mail address for anything outside corporate business."

One way to do this is through acceptable use policies. Bill Leo, CIO at Mercer Delta Consulting LLC in New York, says all his employees sign a code of business conduct and ethics that outlines the separation of business and personal affairs. And he says this code is reviewed with the company's 275 employees around the world at least once a year. "We do expect our systems to be used in a lawful, ethical manner," he says.

Termination is an option

He hammers this point home by adding teeth to the policy, which should be expanded to include newer media such as video, chat and blogs. "It's always the last resort, but at some extreme level the policy has to say that termination is an option. Our users understand because they have experienced enough virus outbreaks and loss of productivity due to people's irresponsibility," he says.

So far, Leo hasn't banned access to political content. "We have to wait and see if these campaigns are going to warrant me to be more restrictive as far as bandwidth," he says.

But he admits figuring out a strategy is tricky. It's not as easy as simply banning access to certain sites, such as YouTube.com or the candidate's home pages, where many political videos are accessed. "YouTube is something you can restrict through firewall settings and content filtering. But with most political content, it can be coming at you and it may not even look like political content," he says.

He refuses to be Draconian and limit Internet access too much because of changing corporate cultures. "There's a blurring going on. As we expect more time from employees, there has to be some flexibility through the use of technology," he says. For instance, Leo says allowing users to do their shopping and banking online means they won't need to run out of the office to do those errands. "You can gain back what might be lost productivity, and it's a morale boost," he says.

But Myer warns that companies could be in for a rude awakening when it comes to the threat of political content. He says security issues alone are cause for concern.

"Users can go visit these sites or download content and come back with spyware, malware and malicious code. It's not just the time you waste going there, it's the stuff you pick up while you're doing it," he says.

Also, the amount of spam that could be generated by users giving out their e-mail address is a potential burden for IT.

Legal risk

Finally, he says that political sites always pose a legal risk for companies. "What if an employee downloads a video parody that is offensive to a co-worker? You could be looking at a hostile work environment lawsuit," he says.

These are trends that the average company hasn't had to deal with yet in regards to political content. "If one company has to pay out for a lawsuit, everyone will become more sensitive to this issue," he says.

The first step to ward off such a threat is to do a realistic assessment of where employees are spending their time online. "Track the categories and decide if political content poses a problem," Myer says. He advises IT groups to use monitoring tools to create a threat analysis report that shows how much bandwidth is being used by which individuals and applications.

Then you should examine your company's core values, its compliance mandates and its overall risk. Use those findings to craft your acceptable usage policies. You should not only communicate these policies to employees, but also put in place automated measures that relay the policy to nonemployees, such as clients and business partners.

Adelson says he's seen an increase in regulated companies using disclaimers in e-mail messages. "Signatures are now five times as long in these industries. There are even automatic replies sent from companies when you e-mail an employee that restate their policies," he says.

A final step to insulate your company from the risk that political content poses is to put in place monitoring and filtering tools that search for keywords and track traffic on an ongoing basis based on your acceptable use policy. Myer says human resources and business unit managers should oversee these tools. "They're the ones who have to pay the price for inappropriate use at work," he says.

Adelson says one good thing about the campaign starting this early is that there is time to get your infrastructure in order and your policies in place. "This is not a sky-is-falling situation. If you start to see problems now you have time to fix them," he says.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor near Boston. Former events editor and writer at Network World, she developed and hosted the magazine's technology road shows. She is also the former managing editor of Network World's popular networking site, Fusion. She has won several industry awards for her reporting, including the American Society of Business Publication Editors' prestigious Gold Award. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

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