The European court of human rights (ECHR) ruled this week that European employers can legally monitor the online communications of their employees. This means that employers can monitor employees’ use of the Internet to send both work-related and private messages during office hours.
The ECHR’s ruling came at the conclusion of a lawsuit brought by a Romanian engineer against his employer. The engineer’s employer discovered that he had used and was continuing to use the Yahoo Messenger system to chat with his professional colleagues and contacts as well as personal contacts, such as his brother and fiancee. He was fired in 2007 as a result of these actions as the company’s policy clearly prohibited the use of Yahoo Messenger for personal communications.
The employee challenged the legality of the termination of his employment and argued that his employer should not have been monitoring his Internet usage.
The ECHR, located in Strasbourg, ruled in favor of the employer and dismissed the engineer’s argument that his right to “confidential correspondence” was violated when the company monitored his personal online messaging.
In rendering its decision, the court held that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.” The court further added that the company had accessed the engineer’s messages because it believed that the messages only contained professional communications - as per the company policy.
The ECHR also upheld the Romanian court’s decision to admit as evidence the transcripts of the actual communications of the engineer. The court reasoned that allowing the transcripts as evidence at trial to be used against the engineer “proved that he had used the company’s computer for his own private purposes during working hours.”
The ECHR further held that because the employer’s attorneys redacted the identities of the individuals with whom the engineer communicated, Romania’s courts had struck a “fair balance” between respect for those individuals’ privacy and the defendant-employer’s interests.
The judgments of the ECHR set precedence and are binding on those European countries that have ratified and signed the European Convention on Human Rights.