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The Internet, Web Sites and E-Mail

Developing Information
Technology Policy

Morris Enyeart
By Morris A. Enyeart, Ed.D.
League Internet and
Web Services Consultant,
President, City Connections LLC

One of the most common questions received by the League’s free Internet and Web Advisory Service concerns municipal policies for email, Internet use and the municipal web sites. Over the past fifteen years the landscape of the municipal use of these facilities has changed dramatically regardless of the size or technical infrastructure of the municipality.

The League does have a sample Acceptable Use of Municipal Internet, Web Site and E-Mail policy that its member municipalities can download from the League’s web site (www.njslom.org/documents/Sample-Internet-Web-Policy.pdf).

The content of your municipal policy should address the following areas:

• Privacy
• Personal Use of Computers
• Instant and text messaging
• Chain letters, Hoaxes & Viruses
• Inappropriate Material
• Acceptable Use of the Internet
• Establishing Internet Connections
• Personal Use of Municipal Internet Facilities
• Representation of Municipality
• Compliance Requirements
• Malicious Activities
• Chat Rooms, Newsgroups, Message Boards
• Downloading of Software
• Excessive Consumption of Resources
• Reporting Requirements
• Advertising on the Municipal Web Site
• External Web Links
data stream of zeros and ones

A policy that was approved ten years ago is probably not adequate today.

It is important for the governing body to formally adopt the municipality’s official policy, have a training /information session with staff, elected and appointed officials and volunteers. Vendors who work on the municipal web site or network should also be given a copy of the policy. All of these parties should sign an acknowledgement that they have read and accept the policy.

Privacy Simply stated, employees and others who use municipal equipment and access municipal systems, including the municipal web site, should have no expectation of privacy. The municipality has the right and obligation to periodically review usage of municipal assets. This periodic inspection should also include e-mail sent and received.

While we advise municipalities not to allow municipal staff to use personal e-mail accounts to send and receive municipal information, it is a reality today that there are still significant numbers of elected and appointed officials who use their personal email accounts to transact official municipal business. These individuals should be aware that in doing so, their personal mailbox becomes subject to OPRA requests, litigation discovery, and State of New Jersey records retention statutes. Also, allowing people to use their personal email account does not absolve the municipality of its responsibilities for records retention should there be a problem.

Chat rooms, Newsgroups, Facebook, Twitter Some municipalities have begun to publish information on Facebook and use Twitter or similar or other services to reach out to their residents by publishing information on these sites. While there is nothing wrong with doing so, the municipality should only do so on accounts set up and managed by the municipality. Accounts must be regularly scanned for inappropriate postings. It is also advised that you periodically check your fans page to make sure you want to be associated with the content posted on their page. Remember, you would not consider allowing the general public to post anything they want on your official municipal web site. Postings of Fans should also be restricted as much as possible. While most people will follow posting rules, experience has shown that public postings bulletin boards, chat rooms on other public media oftentimes use inappropriate language and content when discussing municipal business.

Furthermore, the municipality is obligated to keep a record of content published. Make sure you have all of the login and password information for the accounts.

Acceptable Use of the Internet While it is common for municipalities to allow staff to use municipal computers and Internet connections to access the Internet, there should be very clear boundaries and acceptable uses established. When we review web site statistics of the municipal web sites we maintain, it is clear that the majority of people who use the Internet do so during the day while they are working. Having an established policy that governs periods available for personal use as well as the type of sites that should not be accessed via municipal computers and connections is extremely important to limit liability and inappropriate use or prolonged use throughout the work day.

Since video and other high bandwidth content has become more commonplace on the Internet, it is important to restrict access to these resources. Allowing people to watch movies even during their lunch break can adversely affect Internet response time for other municipal staff who are trying to research or communicate through the web.

Downloading of Software The Internet and high speed connections used by almost all municipalities has made it extremely easy to download software. It is important to have strong virus control software for both the municipal network and the wireless computers people use. It has been estimated that thousands of new viruses, spybots and other malicious programs are unleashed on the Internet every day.

In addition, even legitimate, virus free software from the Internet may accidently interfere with the operation or comprise the security of the municipality. Screensavers, a commonly downloaded software program, are notorious for containing viruses and Trojan Horse programs.

Advertising on the Municipal Web Site In this environment of economic challenges, it is tempting for municipalities to consider whether it is feasible to add paid advertising to their web sites. This question has been asked repeatedly over the years, but we are seeing it more often today given the desire to create additional revenue sources to help keep property taxes down.

We maintain that while it is legal to accept advertising on municipal web sites, to do so can create a legal and political quagmire for the municipality. Imagine an ad for a local restaurant that has failed its health inspection after the ad has been placed or a legally established non-profit hate group wanting to place an ad on your site. Will you accept ads only from businesses or also from private citizens who want to advertise a particular point of view?

Given the cost of continually managing and monitoring ads as well as potential litigation costs, we do not believe advertising is a desirable revenue source for municipalities.

External Web Site Links Adding links to external web sites is a valuable and worthwhile resource for municipal web sites. However, it is important you include a disclaimer in your Privacy Policy or post a separate Links Disclaimer. You must let the visitor know they are leaving your web site and that you have no legal or functional control of the content or availability of that web site.

Your Links Disclaimer should also include a policy statement indicating what types of web site link requests will not be granted permission to be placed on the municipal web site.

By law, you cannot allow postings of political endorsements and ads in the municipal buildings. It is the same for municipal web sites. When it comes to links to external web sites, you are committing to a regular review of the links to ensure they are not violating your policy. For example, we know of an instance where a linked web site for a youth sports group posted a political endorsement of a candidate of political office on the home page of their web site. The link was removed from the municipal web site until after the election because the municipality had a policy that enabled them to do so.

If an adult entertainment, hate group or organization promoting violence requests a link on the municipal web site, your refusal to do so will be significantly weakened if you do not have a policy which prohibits linking to sites with specified content categories. If you post links to churches, are you also prepared to post links to all religious places of worship that request a link including organizations who are often characterized as cults?

In summary, it is important for a municipality in today’s connected world to approve and implement a comprehensive Internet, web site and e-mail policy in order to minimize litigation risks, communicate effectively to the public. The League’s sample policy referenced at the beginning of this article has evolved and been changed many times over the years. We recommend municipalities review the policy annually, making appropriate changes.

 


This article appeared in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 87, Number 5, May 2010

 

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