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California is one step closer to becoming one of the first states to ban companies from asking job seekers and workers for their user names and passwords on Facebook and other social networking websites.
The state Assembly on Thursday passed a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose) that would make anything workers designate as private on social networks off limits to employers. The bill, which passed the Assembly without a dissenting vote, now goes to the California Senate.
Assembly Bill 1844 would not prevent employers from checking social networking websites for information that’s publicly available. Employers frequently use social media to screen job applicants, but to avoid exposing themselves to liability, they stop short of asking to see private information, employment lawyers say.
Campos acknowledges that the practice of asking for such passwords is not widespread and that her bill is more of a preventative measure. It’s unclear if it's even legal to ask private-sector employees for access to their social networking accounts in California, where privacy is written into the state Constitution. The bill does not apply to the public sector. Law enforcement and security agencies are the ones that most frequently snoop on employees’ private digital lives.
"As our culture changes around social media, our laws need to reflect those changes, and we must make sure we protect employees' privacy," Campos said.
The issue captured the national spotlight when a Maryland state correctional officer returning from a leave of absence was asked for his Facebook user name and password. He filed a complaint with the ACLU.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has sponsored another such bill, and eight other states have introduced similar legislation.
House and Senate Democrats have also unveiled a pair of bills that also would forbid employers from requiring job seekers or workers to hand over their social networking passwords as a condition of employment. The bills would allow state and federal agencies to ask for such passwords if the person in question works with classified information.
"We feel very strongly about this issue," Yee said. "What’s private and personal should remain private and personal. Nobody should have to give up any of that information to get a job or to get admitted to a university."
Facebook has not taken a position on the California bills, but it welcomed similar legislation in Maryland.
"As a user, you shouldn't be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job," Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, wrote in a blog post. "And as the friend of a user, you shouldn't have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don't know and didn't intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job."
Johnny Veloz, a 24-year-old freelance photographer from Sacramento, said he was asked for his Facebook password during a phone interview for a full-time security job for a government contractor in New York. He declined to give it and was not offered the job.
“Why would I want to work in that kind of environment?” Veloz said.
California privacy advocate Beth Givens says the two bills send a strong message.
“Requiring access to an applicant's social media account is no different than reading an individual's personal diary or emails or viewing personal home videos. Granted, in days gone by, diaries were very private. But we live in a different time, and people reveal a considerable amount of personal information on their social media pages," Givens said. "That doesn't mean that employers should access these accounts for the purpose of making hiring decisions. As we know, technological developments outpace the law regarding consumer protection. The Yee and Campos bills attempt to bring the two into harmony for a technology that the vast majority of individuals use today: social media.”
Michael Kalt, a San Diego lawyer who is the governmental affairs director for the California State Counsel for the Society for Human Resource Management, said no one in the business community opposes the legislation.
“This is cure for a disease that doesn't really exist,” Kalt said.
Julie Totten, an employment lawyer for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who represents employers, says she’s not aware of a single private employer in California who asks for social media passwords.
"It's a boon for the legislators who get to pound their chests and say, 'Look at what we did,'" Totten said. "This is not going to change anyone’s policies and procedures."
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