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FAQs on Electronic Communications Policy and Net Etiquette

Frequently Asked Questions

What is this all about?

1. Organizations in the public and private sector increasingly are recognizing the need to establish electronic mail (email) or broader electronic communications (EC) policies to avoid related problems before they occur, have a basis for dealing with communications issues when they do occur, and to help ensure:

  • the efficient use of their communications facilities;
  • taking best advantage of non-traditional forms of communications (such as email, discussion lists, voice and text chat rooms, etc.);
  • the proper preservation of, continued access to, and recordkeeping (including disposition) for important electronic documentation over time, including website records; and
  • minimal exposure to litigation that may be brought about by employees, other organizational members and external individuals or organizations.

What can we learn from some current literature?

2. The literature on electronic communications policies is fairly rich, although some of the best sources are in unpublished papers or papers that have been published on the Web. David Wallace <davwal (a)>, School of Information, University of Michigan, consulted to the CPSR ECPG. His unpublished, draft literature survey "Recordkeeping and Electronic Mail Policy: The State of Thought and the State of the Practice" is accessible in the HOT TOPICS/E-com/Email and Guest Author's pages of

3. As noted by Margaret Steen, in her July 6, 1999, InfoWorld article, "When E-Mail Puts You at Risk: To minimize legal issues, companies need clear e-mail use policies:

"E-mail can be used as evidence in cases claiming sexual harassment, discrimination of all sorts, or hostile work environments. But if an employer goes too far in the direction of reading employees' e-mail, in an effort to prevent this kind of liability, it could also be sued by employees for invasion of privacy. Furthermore, third parties can sue a company for what its employees do using e-mail, including sending copyrighted documents without permission, libeling another company, or violating antispam laws. "A good policy will caution employees to be careful about what they send outside the company--both to make sure there's no confidential information and to be sure they know that whenever they send e-mail message outside of the company, they are in effect representing the company." Experts say e-mail policies need to explain to employees how to handle attachments and other documents that might cause problems.

4. Michael Overly, a special counsel to the information technology group at the Milwaukee-based law firm of Foley & Lardner cautions: If someone conducts criminal activity using an e-mail system, unknown to the company, the company's e-mail system can be subject to seizure. Or an employer may be sued in a breach of contract case. As part of that they're going to have to go through a lot of employee e-mail.

5. Equally important, employees (and in the case of CPSR volunteers, members and other users) are entitled to know what the policy is in terms of ownership of list postings and other email, monitoring of email (employee email and list postings obviously involve very different considerations that should be spelled out to all concerned), access to and use of member information, etc.

6. "Managing E-mail as Records" reports on 1997 research at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at The University of Texas at Austin, addresses policy issues and experience in the public sector, private sector, academia and professional associations. Although there are differences, professional associations have several characteristics that are similar to those of CPSR, e.g., a small number of paid employees, a large number of members who are not employee, heavy dependence upon the use of discussion lists, websites, etc. While several such organizations are in the process of developing electronic communications policies, those contacted indicated they did not yet have a product. Those not yet working on a policy uniformly expressed interest in seeing what CPSR develops as they felt they probably needed something similar for themselves.

7. Recognition of this need has risen in all sectors in recent years as numerous cases have come to light where the absence of such policies and their implementation has proved to be very costly to the concerned organizations, as has been brought out in numerous recent court cases including the tobacco industry and Microsoft anti-trust cases.

What are "communications facilities"?

8. In this context, the terms "electronic communications facilities" or "facilities" mean current and future technologies including servers, email address system (e.g., <>), email, vmail, World Wide Web, discussion lists, textual/voice chat room, telephone, pager and facsimile systems, computers, modems and other technologies that may be owned or used by CPSR for carrying out electronic communications.

What is electronic communications EC policy?

9. EC policy has to do with what organizations expect and require of their employees in their communications practices and makes it clear that the organization does not abide the use of its facilities for such purposes as the willful and illegal violation of intellectual property rights, libelous or threatening statements. It articulates and clarifies user privileges and responsibilities. In the case of CPSR it includes employees, volunteers, officers, other member and non-member users of CPSR communication facilities.

Why electronic communications policy instead of email policy?

10. Technologies for electronic communications are becoming increasingly integrated (word processing, email, vmail, chat rooms, pagers, discussions lists, websites). Voice annotation has been incorporated into word processing systems for years. Speech generation and recognition systems are now available to convert vmail to email and vice versa. Thus, there is a growing rationale for establishing a broader policy that embraces all aspects of current and future electronic communications within an organization.

What are Net etiquette guidelines?

11. Many organizations and employees see the need for something beyond the typically mandatory electronic communications policies in the form of voluntary guidelines for sound communications practices and acceptable and unacceptable communications behavior. Such guidelines have come to be known as "Net etiquette", or "netiquette" guidelines. In most cases, the impetus for policy comes from the organization itself and stems from operational considerations and legal concerns. Organizations sometimes also see the need for netiquette guidelines to reinforce organizational culture or to set good communication practices and behavioral expectations regarding the use of corporate assets. However, frequently the impetus for netiquette guidelines comes from employees or other users of organizational communications facilities because they want to learn about good communications practices as well as what is expected of them behaviorally and what they should be able to expect of others using such systems. EC Policy and Netiquette guidelines are separate documents that should not be confused with one another; however they should be mutually supportive, one setting out mainly mandatory usage policies, the other setting out mainly voluntary style, organizational cultural and behavioral guidelines. Netiquette guidelines may be published as part of or annexed to organization EC policies. An excellent statement on the importance of netiquette, including links to other sites was published in the CPSR Newsletter: "Netiquette Training: Whose Responsibility?" by Jeff Johnson, CPSR/Palo Alto.

What is the current state of CPSR EC policy?

12. A separate report, "Existing CPSR Electronic Communications Policies and Practices," reflects an analysis of the status of CPSR electronic communications policy as of August 1999 is available on request from the CPSR National Office or the author, Rick Barry <>. It summarizes the current (11/1999) state of policies in CPSR having to do with electronic communications. It shows that while there seem to be many traditions that are at least attempted to be followed (where known), they are almost entirely unwritten and unknown to most CPSR's officers and members. Most organizations would not regard unwritten practices as policies. Little is known about the origin of some existing practices or how or if they were vented or if they are in line with current CPSR thinking. It is also apparent that there are many gaps where, in the absence of established policy, decisions must be taken in an ad hoc manner as situations arise without adequate time for consideration, without prior understanding on the part of the parties involved and most likely to be effected, and without adequate thought as to the precedent-setting nature of the decisions. CPSR leaders want these practices codified so that they can be openly discussed and decided upon in some rational fashion and made known to people who make use of CPSR facilities.

Why does CPSR need an EC policy?

13. Not being a private or public sector organization, one might wonder why CPSR needs such a policy. CPSR recognized the more general need for such policy over two years ago when it posted a recommended email policy model for other organizations on its website <> along with commentaries on that model. More recently, CPSR leadership saw the need for such a policy for its own organization and operations.

14. Communications facilities and technology form the backbone of CPSR business. They are essential for communications among members, consultants and others in the conduct of CPSR programs and among staff, volunteers, officers, Board members and the general membership in the management and administration of CPSR. While conferences and meetings of various types continue to be important to CPSR in carrying out its work, its work is increasingly carried out by telephone, email, discussion lists and its World Wide Web site <>. CPSR is making greater use of teleconferencing for the management of CPSR as a means of minimizing travel costs. Similarly CPSR is now using electronic commerce software for on-line credit transactions for conferences. Print media is giving way to electronic publishing. Both for budgetary reasons and to make it more broadly accessible, the CPSR Newsletter has shifted in the past year from print to a web publication format. Electronic systems facilitate increased participation in CPSR activities by a much larger number of people who are now more widely distributed geographically both in the U.S. and internationally. At the same time, they open CPSR to greater risk of illegal use or uses that are contradictory to the aims of CPSR. CPSR may not be in the private sector a such, but it is a California corporation, and there are laws governing the use of technology for these various purposes to which CPSR must adhere. While CPSR favors lesser controlled forms of interchange, it is nonetheless ultimately responsible for what happens over facilities it sponsors, even when it doesn't own them. In the absence of written and well distributed policies and guidelines, CPSR has no real recourse if its facilities are improperly or illegally used, and courts are not very sympathetic to organizations without clearly established and published policies.

15. CPSR requires an EC policy for the same reasons that other organizations do, as outlined above, but also for another reason that is critical to the continued operation of CPSR as a viable entity under California statute: i.e., protection of its status as a non-profit organization, without which CPSR would have to close it doors. Accordingly the Chairman and President of CPSR, with agreement of the Board, established an Electronic Communications Policy Group to develop recommendations for an electronic communications policy for further consideration and possible adoption.

Back to CPSR Electronic Policy opening page
Created by nbrigham
Last modified May 02, 2005 01:04 PM

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