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Social Networking Online Protection Act Introduced

By Allen Smith  5/1/2012

Continued concern about employers asking applicants and employees for their passwords to social media sites has led to the introduction of a federal bill to prohibit the practice. On April 27, 2012, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., introduced the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA).

SNOPA would prohibit employers from requiring a username, password or other access to online content. It would not allow employers to demand such access to discipline, discriminate or deny employment and would bar employers from disciplining individuals who refuse to volunteer such information.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been urging Congress to protect applicants and employees from requests to hand over private information on their private social networking accounts, such as Facebook. “It’s an egregious violation of personal privacy, and it is often happening in situations where people feel powerless to resist,” the ACLU said on its website. “That is why Congress needs to step in. We need a bright line rule—if it’s behind a password, that means keep out, whether you’re an employer, a school or the government.”

The ACLU urged its members to ask Congress to pass legislation that makes it illegal for employers to:

Access personal accounts or devices that are password protected.

Require any employee or applicant to provide Facebook passwords or other private materials.

Pressure employees to permit access to private material in other ways, including indirect routes such as by inviting them to join private social networks (e.g., “friending” them).

Discharge or discipline any employee who refuses to provide access to private materials or to threaten to do so.

Refuse to hire anyone for refusing to provide access to private materials.

“Several states, including New York, have begun addressing this issue, but we need a federal statute to protect all Americans across the country,” Engel stated. On May 2, 2012, Maryland became the first state prohibiting employers from requesting the social media passwords or accessing the social media accounts of prospective and current employees.

“We must draw the line somewhere and define what is private. No one would feel comfortable going to a public place and giving out their username and passwords to total strangers,” Engel remarked. “They should not be required to do this at work, at school or while trying to obtain work or an education. This is a matter of personal privacy and makes sense in our digital world.”

Said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., “I am proud to be an original co-sponsor of this legislation. The American people deserve the right to keep their personal accounts private. No one should have to worry that their personal account information, including passwords, can be required by an employer or educational institution, and if this legislation is signed into law, no one will face that possibility.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is manager, workplace law content, for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Potentially Illegal Practice of Demanding Passwords Criticized, SHRM Online Legal Issues, April 2012
Maryland Enacts Country's First Social Media Password Law, SHRM Online Legal Issues, May 2012

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