Bipartisan bill seeks to protect social media privacy

2013-04-17T17:15:00Z Bipartisan bill seeks to protect social media privacyMARY SPICUZZA | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6122 La Crosse Tribune

A bipartisan bill circulating in the state Legislature aims to protect privacy by restricting employers, schools and landlords from accessing private social media and email accounts.

The bill, co-sponsored by state Reps. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, and Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, would prohibit employers, schools and landlords from requesting that employees, applicants, students, or tenants give them access — or disclose passwords — to social media or other Internet accounts, including email.

It would also bar employers, schools and landlords from firing, expelling, suspending, disciplining or otherwise penalizing people who refuse such requests.

Similar legislation has been introduced in at least 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arkansas, New Mexico and Utah have already enacted laws this year.

The possible privacy invasion if such requests are permitted could extend beyond applicants, students, tenants or workers directly involved to others in their social networks who have sent them sensitive information, Sargent said.

She added the legislation would not prevent anyone from looking at social media posts, including those on Facebook or Twitter, that are in the public domain.

Current state law does not regulate employer, school or landlord access to personal Internet accounts.

“We, as legislators, must keep up with the pace of technology,” Sargent said. “As times evolve, so must our laws.”

Bies said the bill simply makes sense.

“It’s common sense,” he said. “People chose to have privacy. There’s no reason an employer should demand that you share your passwords.”

He added that employers and schools would still be able to access electronic communications devices that they have paid for, and they could also access accounts that they provide. Under the bill, institutions could also continue to restrict certain Internet sites on employer-owned or university-owned devices.

Dave Maass, a spokesman for the San-Francisco based digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said lawmakers have been introducing bills around the country because people are outraged by the invasion of privacy that can come with employers or others obtaining social media passwords from people.

He added that his organization urges people to practice “good digital hygiene,” such as checking privacy settings to ensure sensitive information is not being shared publicly. But he added that obtaining passwords from people could allow employers to access any and all information on social media and email. That includes email exchanges, private Facebook messages, direct messages on Twitter, and private photographs or posts on Facebook.

Maass said the invasiveness of employers or others requesting private passwords is similar to asking for people’s keys to their apartments so they could “rustle around” and see if they found things they didn’t like.

“Facebook is like your digital home away from home,” Maass said.

He said he has not specifically researched Wisconsin’s bill but added that in general EFF supports such legislation.

“You shouldn’t have to go through a digital strip search to apply for a job,” Maass said.

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