Millions of people across the globe now keep online diaries - known as a 'web log' or 'blog' - sharing opinions and thoughts with many millions more who read them. A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 7 per cent of US internet users - more than 8 million people - write blogs, while 27 per cent read them. The UK could follow this trend.
An employee of the book shop recently became one of the first in the UK to be 'dooced' - a specific term used for dismissal resulting from the contents of a blog - for criticising his employer online.
Joe Gordon was sacked in January for gross misconduct and bringing the company into disrepute after referring to his employer as 'Bastardstones', and his 'sandal wearing' manager as 'Evil Boss' in his blog, the Woolamaloo Gazette. He has appealed and the matter may end up in an employment tribunal.
What could Waterstone's have done to prevent Gordon from speaking his mind in his blog? An employer is unlikely to be able to prevent staff having a blog altogether, just as it cannot prevent them from talking about their daily lives to a group of friends. But as the internet provides an instant and global means of transmitting information, a specific anti-blogging policy could be worth considering.
While employers can control their own IT networks with e-mail and internet policies, regulating an employee's use of their own PC outside working hours is more problematic. They could introduce clear limitations on the permissible contents of a blog, and reserve the right to take action if staff overstep the mark.
Any policy should aim to prevent staff identifying the company (either by name or implication) or bad-mouthing the organisation, its staff or customers. It should also require staff to state that their blog contains personal opinions.
Where to draw the line?
How far can, or should, employers go? Should they, for example, seek to prevent staff from stating racist or sexist opinions in their blog?
The policy could state that blogs should not contain anything contrary to the employer's equal opportunities or diversity policy, emphasising that comments bringing the company into disrepute will become a disciplinary issue.
A number of issues may arise with an anti-blogging policy. How would it be monitored? Who would decide whether an employer's identity has been subtly revealed? What would amount to 'disrepute'? And who would determine what is unsuitable for publication?
In rare circumstances, information published in a blog might amount to a 'protected disclosure' under whistleblowing laws, giving protective rights to the employee.
In addition, staff will no doubt contend that their employer has no right to limit their freedom of expression where it does not affect the business.
If an ex-employee bad-mouths the company in a blog after the employment relationship has ended, the ex-employer may still be able to take legal action. Confidentiality provisions may apply post-termination, or the employer may fall back on the rather complex defamation and malicious falsehood laws.
While these can be a successful means of redressing the damage caused by a discontented ex-employee, they can be expensive and time-consuming.
However, as Waterstone's discovered, taking a tough line on blogging can also bring something that had previously only been read "by friends and friends of friends", in Gordon's own words, to a national, or even global, audience.
www.ptod.com/27490.article for Confessions of a blogger
By Russell Brimelow, partner, Lewis Silkin