Porn case triggers Internet alert

August 22, 1997

AUSTRALIAN universities have warned their staff that improper use of the Internet may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.

The warning followed a case at the University of Melbourne where a staff member was sacked for using the Internet to download large quantities of pornography and illegally copying software that was copyright.

At Curtin University of Technology in Perth, a student was suspended after he was caught downloading pornographic pictures and storing them on floppy disks which he then took home. He was reported by other students who were disturbed by his actions.

The university said breaches of the rules would lead to a minimum 28-day suspension from the use of IT facilities.

After the sacking of the staff member at Melbourne, the National Tertiary Education Union issued a circular headed "Careful, they might hear you!''.

The circular said that academics and staff who used the Net for email and for downloading material from the World Wide Web should know that their activities were being recorded and that the details could be recovered - even years afterwards.

The union had appealed against the dismissal decision at Melbourne on the grounds that the punishment was too harsh - and that the staff member had been singled out to make an example of him. But the appeal was rejected and the staff member sacked.

In its circular, the union said a decisive factor in the case was the ability of the university's management to produce comprehensive records from the past two years of email conversations, Internet sites the accused had browsed, and the amount of work time spent using employer-provided facilities.

NTEU Victorian branch secretary Ted Murphy said the reason for the warning to union members was not so much the issue of downloading pornography - which it did not endorse - as the fact that an email conversation was not equivalent to a phone conversation or a personal letter. Instead, email was a potentially public form of communication that left a record the employer was able to access.

"One of our members was dismissed because of copyright breaches and misuse of the employer's time,'' Mr Murphy said. "The management was able to show that the staff member had made considerable use of the university's time and computing facilities for private purposes.''

After an internal tribunal recommended dismissal, the union appealed against the severity of the penalty and the fact that other staff had been guilty of using the Internet in the same way, but they had not been punished so harshly. This was rejected.

The director of Curtin University's computing centre, John Winship, said that in granting staff and some students the right to use its email facilities, it reserved the right to take appropriate steps to safeguard those facilities.

He said a log of email traffic movements is kept automatically and if there was a suspicion "that something is going on that shouldn't" there is a way to find out.

At Monash University, vice chancellor David Robinson has told staff that all university-wide email messages would in future have to be authorised by a member of the vice-chancellor's group.Faculty or individual campus-based messages would need to have the authorisation of the particular dean or campus director.

"The use of the university's email and computer network is a privilege - not a right,'' Professor Robinson said in an email.

The order was promptly criticised by some staff in university-wide emails.

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