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'Workplace culture' key to porn's acceptability

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Workplaces where porn is passed around should address internal cultural issues rather than automatically sack employees for the offence, cyber and legal experts said following a recent ruling in favour of three men fired for distributing sexually explicit material at work.

In a case before Fair Work Australia, the industrial tribunal ruled that three Australia Post workers sacked for sending pornographic material in work emails were treated "harshly", and will consider later this month whether the trio should get their jobs back.

According to senior ANU college of law lecturer Wayne Morgan, the issue of porn in workplaces is not new - for example, mechanics with nudie calendars - but has been exacerbated by the ease of distribution provided by the internet.

Mr Morgan, who lectures in law and sexuality, said since porn was legalised by classification laws decades ago, its appropriateness in workplaces is entirely down to the culture of the workplace, and the material's potential impact on other employees.

"What they are actually doing, many would argue, is engaging in discrimination against women when they send this stuff around the workplace," he said.

"If we want an answer to pornography in the workplace, we have to look at the workplace culture … It is the culture in the workplace that will determine whether or not the distribution of pornography is acceptable."


The three Australia Post workers were among a group of 40 disciplined by the company for their online activities in 2010, after a new email filter was installed on the internal network.

Software that monitors employees' activities on company networks is now commonplace for most organisations, according to cyber security expert Nigel Phair from the University of Canberra's centre for internet safety.

Mr Phair said sophisticated tools can track and flag every action of any network user, but such devices should not be used to arbitrarily sack workers.

"That's where the smart needs to be not just in the software, but in the people that evaluate it and look for anomalies and trends … You've got to be a little bit sensible about this," Mr Phair said.

He said there was an added risk with pornographic material, which was often used to carry malicious software, because criminals know that the promise of nudity prompts people to click without thought. While he agreed workplaces should monitor their networks, he said workers should know they're being watched and be told regularly about what's expected of them.

"There should be some checks and balances," Mr Phair said.

He also warned technology alone - such as internet blocks and filters - would not provide instant solutions, particularly as internet access via smartphones and other mobile devices increases.

"As people start bringing their own mobile devices and plugging into the corporate network, that adds another dimension to it."

In its ruling on the Australia Post case, two of the three Fair Work Australia commissioners wrote "special rules" should not apply to cases involving pornography in the workplace compared to other offences.

The case will be heard again in Melbourne, in closed session, on September 19.

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