Proposed bill to protect employee social media accounts

Legislation would prevent employers from asking for social media passwords

· February 27, 2013, 11:03 pm

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Proposed legislation in the Philadelphia City Council could finally prohibit employers from requiring access to potential and current employees’ social media accounts.

The bill — introduced on Feb. 21 by Councilmember William Greenlee — would amend Title 9 of the Philadelphia Code entitled “Regulation of Businesses, Trades and Professions” and was referred to the Committee on Rules upon its introduction.

It provides that employers cannot require workers or job applicants to disclose their account information — including usernames and passwords — in order to gain access to their social networking site profile or account through an electronic communication device.

It also bans employers from asking personnel to log onto a social networking site in their presence in order to access their account and from accessing their profiles indirectly through a social networking contact of the employee.

Anyone who feels that his or her rights granted under this bill have been violated will be able to file a report with an office or agency to be designated by the mayor.

The proposed Philadelphia bill is meant to combat the growing trend of employers asking prospective and current employees for access to their social media accounts, Councilman Greenlee’s Legislative Director Noelle Marconi said.

“People have been coerced into giving up their passwords, and this legislation is aimed at preventing that from happening,” she added.

Law School professor Sophia Lee said in an email that the Philadelphia legislation “will fill a gap in the existing protections for employees’ and job applicants’ online privacy” because there are currently no comparable federal or state laws on the books.

However, Lee said that there were significant limits on the extent of the bill’s reach under the current draft of the legislation.

One restriction she noted in particular is that the proposed ordinance is worded in such a way that it could allow employers to “request usernames and passwords, even for social networking sites, as long as the information will be used to access the employee/applicant’s account via a desktop computer.”

She said this is because the bill only bans requesting usernames and passwords “in order to gain access, by way of an electronic communication device, to the employee’s or applicant’s social networking site profile.”

Lee added that the ordinance defines electronic communications device in a way that includes only mobile devices and thus could exclude a stationary device like a desktop computer.

She said that the bill was “unusual” in this sense, noting that other proposed ordinances have no such restrictions.

Rep. Jesse White (D-Allegheny) introduced a bill of the same nature in the Pennsylvania General Assembly on June 18, 2012, and will introduce a new version of it in the coming weeks.

However, Pennsylvania is not the only state attempting to address this issue. Comparable legislation has already been passed in California, Delaware, Illinois and Michigan, and has been proposed in Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington.

Additionally, Congress has been considering the “Social Networking Online Protection Act” — a federal bill similar to the one proposed in Philadelphia — since its introduction on Feb. 6.

According to Director of Career Services Patricia Rose, this is not an issue that generally affects Penn students.

“I have never heard of a case of an employer demanding to see a student’s Facebook page, or demanding a student’s password for any social media account,” she said in an email. “Nor have I heard from alumni who have been asked.”

She added that employers will Google students who apply for jobs and even look at their presence on social media, but students shouldn’t worry because “to the best of our knowledge [employers] do not demand access to private social media accounts.”

If a student were to be confronted with this problem, though, Rose said the student should say he or she “does not feel comfortable in [giving up this information], and ask why the recruiter would like to gain access to what is a social account not related to his or her job search.”

She added that the student should inform Career Services immediately after the incident so Career Services can contact the employer with the student’s permission.

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