FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - Think of it as cyber-moonlighting.
An influx of Web sites that pay end users to surf, search and send e-mail are enticing employees to use their speedy Internet connections at work to earn a little extra cash while on the clock.
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.
Many surfing on the clock
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 7,000 employees in the survey spent an average of 67 minutes at iWon.com during January.
"It's only recently that we've seen these sites becoming an area of concern," says Ivan O'Sullivan, president of Elron Software, a Burlington, Mass., 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 Columbus, Ohio 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 sites as well as 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 firm'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 Westborough, Mass., 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 behavior 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 in Santa Clara. "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, a partner with Foley & Lardner in Los Angeles and 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 led by Softbank Capital Partners. The Hayward, Calif., company also filed to go public.
"These sites require a critical mass of about one million members" in order to attract vendors and bargain for discounts, says Chris Yeh, chief marketing officer of competitor ClickDough.com of Santa Clara. Yeh says the assets of surf-for-cash sites are the e-mail addresses and personal information about their members. The more members a site has, the higher its valuation by the investment community, he explains.
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 $1,000 last month," says John Ferber, co-founder and chief Internet officer of the Columbia, Md., company Advertising.com, which runs GetPaid4. com. "Some people are trying to earn a living doing this."