Think of it as cyber-moonlighting. An influx of Web sites that pay end users to surf, search and send e-mails are enticing employees to use their speedy Internet connections at work to earn a little extra cash while on the job. The phenomenon has a growing number of corporate network professionals monitoring or blocking such sites because they violate Internet usage policies, create security risks and distract workers from doing their real jobs.
The number of surf-for-cash sites has mushroomed in recent months, with at least 70 sites currently online or in beta test mode. The sites run the gamut from AdPerks.com, which pays users to view online ads and visit advertiser Web sites, to Zupermail.com, which pays users to read and respond to e-mail from advertisers. Especially popular are sweepstakes sites such as iWon.com, a portal that awards daily cash prizes to its members.
Although they are geared toward consumers, these sites are attracting many on-the-job users. For example, iWon.com was one of the top 10 sites where employees spent the most amount of time during the month of January, according to a survey of at-work Internet usage by Nielsen/NetRatings. The 7000 employees in the survey spent an average of 67 minutes at iWon.com during January.
Content Technologies' (Asia/Pacific) managing director, Alan Schaverien, says Australian customers are not yet reporting many instances of surf-for-cash sites causing Internet usage problems. However, he says, these sites are already operating in Australia and they're becoming increasingly popular.
"The answer is for organisations to check their Internet usage policy to ensure it covers the use of surf-for-cash sites. Then, it's up to products like MIMESweeper to filter block this material.
"When it comes to content security, managers need to be vigilant, ready to update Internet policy as new risks surface, reconfigure their content security software application, and to educate their staff as to the changed policy," he said.
Meanwhile, the US is experiencing surfing for cash as a content security issue, with new risks surfacing at a rapid pace.
"It's only recently that we've seen these sites become an area of concern," says Ivan O'Sullivan, president of Elron Software, a US manufacturer of software that monitors employee Internet usage. Within six months, "I expect to see these sites emerging in the top 10 areas of inappropriate Web usage".
Eric Schmidt, chief information officer at Bricker & Eckler, a US law firm, began blocking surf-for-cash sites in November after receiving an influx of e-mails hawking membership benefits. Schmidt uses Elron Software's Internet Manager to block these and pornography, gambling and music sites.
"There are a tremendous number of moneymaking sites," Schmidt says. "We try to block the most popular ones and take care of the rest through education."
Brickler & Eckler forbids inappropriate and nonbusiness-related Internet usage. The firm also prohibits employees from running a business using corporate resources. Nonetheless, Schmidt recently sent an e-mail to the company's staff reminding them that surf-for-cash sites are off-limits.
"Going to these sites is a very tempting thing to do. People say they can earn anywhere from $5 to $500 a month," Schmidt says. "I try to gently remind them that going to these sites is wasting the firm's resources."
Surf-for-cash sites are among those that American Superconductor, a research and development company, will track with its new CyberPatrol monitoring and blocking software, says Ross Gibson, vice president of corporate resources. American Superconductor requires its 275 employees to sign a policy prohibiting inappropriate, excessive and profit-making Internet use before they are given access.
"These sites would clearly be out of bounds during work hours," Gibson says, adding that the company may block the sites altogether if usage is excessive.
Surf-for-cash sites cause several headaches for network executives:
* Many sites require downloadable client software, which can cause support problems on standardized corporate desktops.
* Some sites are a minor network bandwidth drain because they provide a steady stream of graphics-intensive banner ads to the desktop, while carrying encrypted information about the user's surfing behaviour back to the site.
* Many companies consider information about where their employees surf to be proprietary, in which case these sites represent a security breach.
"Companies don't want to give out information about where their employees are surfing," says Jonathan Penn, a senior industry analyst with Giga Information Group. "Microsoft was not pleased when Amazon.com showed the top book picks by its employees."
The sites also have clear business implications, such as lost productivity for workers and use of company resources for personal financial gain. In fact, legal experts say companies may be able to claim profits or prizes employees receive from sites accessed via company-provided PCs.
"A lot of companies have employment agreements that would potentially cover these sites," says Mike Overly, author of "E-Policy", a 1999 book on Internet usage policies. "These policies say that if you use our resources or technology in developing something else or generating profit, we own it."
Overly says he's received several calls in the past two months from corporate clients asking whether their existing Internet usage policies cover surf-for-cash and other moneymaking Web sites. He says well-written policies prohibit commercial use of Internet connections and address employee productivity.
"These sites are popping up all the time, which makes it very difficult to block them," Overly says. "Businesses are having to rely on their Internet usage policies to police this problem."
Popularity on the rise
Surf-for-cash sites are gaining popularity because they are raking in venture capital funding and cranking up their membership drives. AllAdvantage.com, the leading surf-for-cash site with five million members, last month received a $100 million investment and has also filed to go public.
Members of surf-for-cash sites can earn anywhere from $5 to $75 month - in cash or coupons - based on their own surfing. But the big dollars come from signing up other members and earning a share of their usage.
"We had a dozen people earn more than $1000 last month," says John Ferber, co-founder and chief Internet officer of Advertising.com, which runs GetPaid4.com. "Some people are trying to earn a living doing this."
While the sites may be causing problems in the short term, Internet watcher Tony Barry, a library affiliate with the Australian National University, says it's just another Internet-related teething problem. Barry points out that society has had more than a generation to sort out how telephones can be used in the workplace, while the Internet is just too new for clearly understood social rules and behavioural norms to have evolved.
"It's like phone abuse," Barry says. "You need a clear policy on what is acceptable behaviour, with obvious sanctions if this is breached. With phones you can block STD calls. With the Internet you can block Web access to sites if the policy proves to be ineffective."
But Barry said managing the issue would inevitably be a balancing act.
"In organisations with good management and a loyal and committed staff there will not be a problem. Where staff are alienated there will be. Management needs to find a midpoint between Draconian restrictions and trust," he said.
Gartner Group routinely advises clients not to try to take too much control of employee's Web access and urges them to recognise that the Internet can be a major aid to business when used correctly.
"This is just another challenge because you're potentially getting into a situation where people will clock up hours on a Web site and leave it open simply for a sake of getting credit," Australian research director Bruce McCabe said.
"Now from a practical point of view it's difficult to go out and use technology to police that. It's probably better to have a strong and clear policy on it that you communicate to all employees."
McCabe says a good usage policy is mandatory today, and should spell out in detail what employees can and can't do, what is considered appropriate and inappropriate content and what is considered an appropriate use of resources. Beyond that, he says, there is little a company can do that will specifically deal with the problem.
"Some companies choose to use software to monitor what employees are doing or even scan machines to see what links there are and what sort of content or even e-mails there are on the machine," MacCabe says. "And you should do all of that if you have a serious problem, but we would recommend you precede that with lots of communications about what you're doing and why you're doing it. The point is not to catch people, the point is to prevent the behaviour. It's a bit like police with speeding - the most effective thing is to broadcast the fact that there is lots of radar out there because it prevents people from speeding."
And at any rate, sites that pay you to surf may not be around for long enough to cause too many problems. According to Brooke Galloway, senior analyst, Internet and eCommerce Strategies with IDC Australia, the business model behind such sites is unlikely to be sustainable.
Galloway says paying Internet users to search particular sites and read and respond to emails doesn't guarantee users will actually absorb or act on the information they read.
"Generating revenue from the Internet is an area many companies are struggling with, and we are seeing a variety of different models every day to address this. Some of these business models are sustainable and others are not."
Diary of a surfer-for-hire
Friday, Feb. 25
10:15 a.m. - I'm surfing for cash now! Read the latest news on CNN. Didn't know former President Bush was hospitalized. The economy is expanding like mad. Microsoft will patch Active Directory.
11 a.m. - These sites are great! Who can I get signed up? I call my husband Bill, talk him into it and give him my member number so I'll get credit for the referral. I hang up and check out the latest news from CeBIT.
11:15 a.m. - Bill calls back. He can't download the viewbar. He got an e-mail from his law firm's IT department about inappropriate Internet usage. Hope this won't affect his partnership track.
11:30 a.m. - Just found a Web site that gives away free CDs for listening to Internet radio. I can do that while I surf! I go to radiofreecash.com and fill out the paperwork. Uh, oh. You need to sign up 150 friends to qualify for your first CD. I don't have 150 friends. Oh, well. I can still earn 20 cents per hour listening to music. I choose the Groovy 70s Rock track, and "Bad Moon Rising" blasts out of my speakers.
Noon - I sign up for iWon.com, the sweepstakes portal that is giving away $10,000 every day through the end of March. I check out my horoscope. It predicts "strokes of luck."
12:15 p.m. - Searching for other freebie sites, I run into paydate.com. It's a "relationship" site that awards coupons to members for placing personal ads and chatting with each other. You get one penny worth of "cupid credits" for every minute online. Don't think Bill will like it if I sign up for this one.
12:30 p.m. - Lunch time. War's "Low Rider" is pounding through my office.
How much money have I made so far? I go to my AllAdvantage.com account. Bad news: it's only worth 19 cents. I need to find sites that pay more.
1:30 p.m. - Hurray! I find a site that gives $15 Amazon.com gift certificates for testing other Web sites. I fill out the paperwork at vividence.com, but then I discover my first test won't come for a few weeks. Bummer.
3 p.m. - I'm getting bored with the surfing. I know why Cher didn't go to the Grammys, that my toddler should be using a spoon by now. Meanwhile, a Jackson Browne tune keeps stopping and starting on my Internet radio.
5:30 p.m. - Thank God I can turn this computer off. I have a headache, and I'm tired of Bob Seger. I check my earnings. Only $1.77.
Think I'll keep my day job. -- Carolyn Duffy Marsan