I am quite sure that for most of us internet connectivity is far more important than the phone or television- or even a car. I know that is what I would choose if I were told that I could have just one of these round the clock. I am quite sure, too, that most of us reading this are not seventeen or eighteen year olds deciding what we want to do with our lives. If I were from that generation, grown up on those seemingly reflexive and annoying texting habits or twittering like Shashi Tharoor almost before I could think, I might well shoot down shipping as a career choice because of one reason alone: limited or no web accessibility for months on end.
I am also quite sure that, sooner rather than later, round the clock broadband (or, as some say in India because the speeds are so slow, fraudband) availability for crew will become the norm on most ships on the high seas. At sea internet costs are coming down, commercial uses are multiplying, and more and more crew will soon be asking this question of managers: does the ship have internet? In return, more and more managers will, in turn, be tom-tomming ‘unlimited web accessibility’ to attract crews, especially youngsters. Everybody wins. No more problems.
Well, not quite, because we better start thinking of what this will do to operations on board. There will be new problems instead of the old ones.
The first question, of course, is access. Does unlimited mean that I can spend any time I get between work to hit the web and land up bleary eyed for watch? What happens to STCW mandated rest periods if they are abused? Who monitors this, the Captain? If so, that policeman’s job is all he will be doing.
Then, do we want everything on the ship to be emailed or blogged or broadcast on Twitter or Facebook -or other similarly (and euphemistically) called ‘social networking sites’ - in real time? (‘This is a rust bucket. See the attached photograph of the starboard lifeboat’). Is the Master ready for incoming emails from, say, a Cadet’s parents? (Dear Captain, please sign off the apple of my eye before Friday so he can attend his second cousin’s third engagement).
Which reminds me. Can I use Skype to ask that girl out? You know, the one I met in the bar on our last call to our next port?
What if confidential documents are scanned and uploaded by a disgruntled miscreant? Or morphed photographs? (An Indian shipping company is fighting a case in court where a whistleblower employee allegedly sent morphed photographs to authorities to claim pollution by the vessel he was on, though not through the internet, I think)
What about YouTube? (Possible titles: “Video of lousy food on MV Rustbucket” or “See Chief Engineer panicking while bunkering” or “Movie shot by Second Officer while on watch in the Singapore Straits”). For more, use your imagination. The possibilities are endless.
The possibilities for good are endless, too. Imagine the access to technical information that an engineer could use, or the ability to contact manufacturers directly with photographs and other details of defective equipment. Imagine improved navigation with direct access to real time weather related satellite imagery. Imagine a hundred other ways officers and crew could use the internet to better themselves professionally.
We can choose to imagine that. Or we can choose to imagine crews spending all their free time downloading porn, and viruses with it for free.
What is clear to me, at least, is that every company operating ships will need a clear internet policy, and a workable one at that. This needs to be done before internet installation; making the rules up as we go along is a bad idea, for obvious reasons. Moreover, policing is not possible: Masters and officers have enough to do already without an additional headache. So, perhaps some urls may have to be blocked instead, firewalls and antivirus software robustly installed and systems administrator training given to a crewmember- or, better still, outsourced to a port of call. Certain equipment- like the GMDSS and ECDIS- will have to be protected; there has already been at least one case of an ECDIS crashing because watchkeepers were using the dedicated internet connection (meant to download or upgrade ECDIS charts) to browse the web. Obviously, the safety implications of this kind of behaviour- in critical equipment failure and distracted watchkeeping- are huge.
However, if we take a step back and think a bit, this conversation has long been in progress in offices ashore. Office workers in almost every setup regularly use official time and resources for ‘personal use’. To some extent, this is an extension of the fact that the line between work and non-work life is even otherwise blurred nowadays. Nonetheless, even after so many years, statistics are published regularly across the world about how much productive time is lost because of internet misuse ashore, or how many trillions a country loses in GDP because of this. The same scenario will play out at sea, too. The only (and, admittedly, big) difference is that a guy ashore cannot kill somebody easily if he is browsing the internet during working time, or if he is tired as a result of too much time on the computer the previous night.
You know, maybe there is no solution to this problem. Maybe we have to put good systems in place, accept that the good outweighs the bad, trust our crews as we trust them with many more important things, and leave it at that.