Monitoring Employee E-Mail and Internet Usage: Avoiding the Omniscient Electronic Sweatshop: Insights from Europe

University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law, Vol. 7, 2005

104 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2006

See all articles by Michael L. Rustad

Michael L. Rustad

Suffolk University Law School

Sandra R. Paulsson

European Parliament


Much has been written about the widespread abusive practice of e-mail and Internet surveillance by employers in the American workplace. At present, U.S. employees in the private workplace have no constitutional, common law or statutory protection against abusive e-mail monitoring practices. In effect, American workers wave goodbye to their right to privacy as soon as they log onto their workplace computer because U.S. courts have formalistically applied a property rights regime to electronic surveillance of e-mail and Internet usage. This article uses the device of a hypothetical multi-national company to compare the diametrically opposed U.S. property-rights approach with the human rights approach to the European law of monitoring employees' e-mail and Internet usage. Part I of this article reviews the case law and statutory developments for e-mail eavesdropping in the U.S. workplace.

At present, American employers can lawfully intercept, search, and read any messages stored in workplace computers because courts have ruled that employees have no expectation of privacy in workplace electronic communications. Part II examines the European human rights tradition that accords workers a privacy expectation in the workplace. We explain the evolution of the human rights approach as a function of a wider social movement of worker's co-determination in Europe. This part of the article next examines statutory and caselaw development from the Council of Europe and the European Union, as well as case studies of e-mail privacy rights in the United Kingdom and France, representing the common law and civil law traditions.

In Part III, we propose that Congress enact the Electronic Monitoring Act of 2005, which is a proposed statute that will harmonize U.S. workplace monitoring law with European law. The model statute will provide U.S. workers with one-time written (?) supplemented by electronic notice of employer monitoring each time an employee boots up her computer. In addition, we propose civil remedies for non-compliance with the statute. The long-term impact of this model statute will be to appropriately balance the employers' need to monitor with employee privacy. The long-term impact of the statute in the global economy will be to give American companies a competitive edge in cross-border transactions and reduce their liability costs. Our proposed Federal Electronic Monitoring Act is only the first step to harmonizing U.S. employment law with the rights that European employees have in an increasingly borderless global economy.

Keywords: workplace monitoring, privacy, European Community, electronic surveillance, tort of privacy, ECPA, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms of 1950, Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights, Data Protection Directive

Suggested Citation

Rustad, Michael L. and Paulsson, Sandra R., Monitoring Employee E-Mail and Internet Usage: Avoiding the Omniscient Electronic Sweatshop: Insights from Europe. University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law, Vol. 7, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Michael L. Rustad (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

Sandra R. Paulsson

European Parliament

Bât. Altiero Spinelli
60 rue Wiertz / Wiertzstraat 60
Brussels, B-1047

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