Law against porn-watching by fed workers?

Greg Nash

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has introduced legislation to prohibit federal employees from accessing pornographic websites on their computers. As reported by The Washington Post, this legislation was prompted after the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general discovered a senior employee had downloaded 7,000 smut files on his work computer, and spent many work hours eyeballing the website “Sadism Is Beautiful.”

Obviously, it is not appropriate for a government employee to shirk his official duties and spend the day watching kink online. But the question remains: will enacting a new law make a difference? Probably not.

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Plainly, all federal employees know they are not permitted to watch porn on their work computers. Most, if not all, agencies already have policies on the appropriate use of computers. At the Library of Congress, every employee must take a computer security awareness course each year. It warns against phishing scams and perilous email attachments and, yes, it reminds employees not to use government computers to view porn. Additionally, each time a Library employee powers on his computer, a splash screen reminds him the computer is government property and must be used in accordance with agency rules.

This is an example of the oversight system working. An inspector general caught an employee breaking the rules. In this instance, the employee was banned from the EPA’s headquarters and is under investigation. The IG informed Congress in a May oversight hearing. It is a classic example of what scholars Mathew D. McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz called fire alarm oversight. Members of Congress cannot monitor every federal employee constantly, so they rely upon watchdogs to pull the alarm when there is mischief.

There also is the matter of implementation. How exactly is an agency supposed to prevent an employee from viewing porn on the job? That is what H.R. 5628 ultimately intends. Again, the bureaucracies already have rules forbidding smut watching; yet, it occurs. Agencies use Web filters to block some pornographic sites, but they are crude tools. The software frequently blocks non-pornographic websites, and does nothing to stop the luridly inclined from getting their thrills ogling not-for-work material via Google or Yahoo images. And let us not forget that more than half of the public carries personal smartphones. The priapic bureaucrat can use his cellphone to fritter away his day viewing “Bare So Horny,” another favorite website of the EPA creep. 

H.R. 5628 would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue rules against watching porn, which agencies then would have to spend time comparing with their current rules. This sounds sensible, but in practice, it likely will devolve into an exercise in bureaucratic busy work. The OMB will spend weeks, if not months, drafting the policy, then agencies will have to compare their own policies against the OMB’s and then alter them accordingly. The agencies will issue implementing directives, all of which will absorb agency energy and resources that could be spent doing the public’s business.

A better approach to the problem would be for Congress to ask the EPA to report back promptly on the steps its information technology folks have taken to block access to smut sites. Congress could then post this information online, and invite the public to comment. Who knows, maybe a techie out there can recommend better filtering software to the EPA.

It is commendable for Meadows and others in Congress to call foul on this bad behavior at the EPA. But putting another law on the books will not fix the problem. Rather, Congress as a whole should take this episode as further reason to devote additional time and energy to holding federal agencies and employees accountable for their performance. 

Kosar is the director of the governance project at the R Street Institute.