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Employer had right to monitor worker's Internet use, European Court rules

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The European Court of Human Rights has held that it was OK for an employer to monitor its employee’s online communications in a case involving the use of company equipment for personal purposes.

Bogdan Mihai Bărbulescu, a Romanian national, was employed by an unidentified private company as an engineer in charge of sales in Bucharest, Romania from August 2004 until August 2007, according to Tuesday’s ruling by the European Court in Case of Bărbulescu v. Romania.

At his employer’s request, Mr. Bărbulescu created a Yahoo Messenger account to respond to client inquiries. In July 2007, the employer informed him that his communications had been monitored for several days, and he was presented with a 45-page transcript of his communications, which included messages sent to his brother and fiancée on personal matters, according to the ruling.

Mr. Bărbulescu was terminated by his company in August 2007 on the basis his company forbade the use of company equipment for personal purposes.

Mr. Bărbulescu claimed the employer had violated his right to correspondence, which was protected by the Romanian constitution and criminal code, but Bucharest courts ruled against him.

Mr. Bărbulescu appealed the rulings to the Strasbourg, France-based European Court, stating his employer’s action was a breach of private life and correspondence, in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Court also ruled against him, in a 6-1 decision.

The employer had “acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate. The court sees no reason to question these findings,” said the majority ruling, in concluding “the complaint is manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected.”

The “partly dissenting opinion” said there should have been a more explicit Internet employer policy. “A human-rights centered approach to Internet usage in the workplace warrants a transparent internal regulatory framework, a consistent implementation policy and a proportionate enforcement strategy by employers” which was “totally absent in the present case.”