The U.S. House of Representatives was introduced to a new bill on Friday, called the Social Networking Online Protection Act 2012, or SNOPA, for short. Drafted by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), SNOPA would ban employers from requiring job candidates to provide their username or password to Facebook, or any other social networking account for that matter.
We must draw the line somewhere and define what is private, Rep. Engel said. No one would feel comfortable going to a public place and giving out their username and passwords to total strangers. They should not be required to do so 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.
While SNOPA is intended to protect job candidates, employers would still be able to search the Internet to find any public information about their prospective employees. Therefore, it is each candidate's prerogative to change the settings of their social networks to make photos or posts private; anything found in the public domain is fair game.
However, if an employer asks someone to access their private account, the company could be fined up to $10,000 in civil penalties, just for asking the question.
It's akin to requiring someone's house keys, said Orin Kerr, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at George Washington University. [It's] an egregious privacy violation.
While the House will soon get a chance to examine the SNOPA bill, the Senate is still working on their own version of the bill. Back in March, U.S. senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate claims of employers asking their candidates for login information, arguing that this practice would violate the Stored Communications Act (SCA) or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The SCA protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures online, while the CFAA disallows intentional access to private computer information without authorization.
In an age where more and more of our personal information - and our private social interactions - are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public and protect personal information from their would-be employers, Sen. Schumer said. This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence.
On sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, millions of users willingly offer private information about their interests, strengths, abilities, and preferences to share with their friends and colleagues. These networks act as unique windows into a person's life. You can see their pictures, their history of work, who their friends and connections are, and more. And since social networks have already compiled the information that potential employers would look for, companies figure, Why don't we just cull applicant information from Facebook?
Still, most academics and politicians believe that forcing potential employees to offer their private login and password information is a serious violation of privacy, and it's just plain wrong. Asking applicants to volunteer private information when they need a job borders on coercion.
You'd be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside, said Catherine Crump, an attorney with the ACLU. It's equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person's private social media account.
When a company requires Facebook login information, candidates can either allow their social accounts to be scrutinized and reviewed, or they can look for another job opportunity. And in this harsh job climate, most applicants feel like they have no choice. They simply can't afford to say no.
Justin Bassett, who once withdrew his application from a job that asked for his Facebook login, says he was lucky to be able to turn down a gig, while most people cannot.
I think asking for account login credentials is regressive, Bassett said. If you need to put food on the table for your three kids, you can't afford to stand up for your belief.
But what does Facebook have to say about all of this?
We don't think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don't think it's the right thing to do, Facebook said in a statement. While we do not have any immediate plans to take legal action against any specific employers, we look forward to engaging with policy makers and other stakeholders, to help better safeguard the privacy of our users.
Facebook added that if an employer sees a candidate is part of a specific group, the company opens itself up to discrimination claims if they decide not to hire that person. Given that a person's gender, race, religion and age are included on a Facebook profile -- all of which are protected by federal employment law -- turning down applicants using Facebook can be a very slippery slope.
If Sens. Schumer and Blumental don't succeed in their bill, maybe Sen. Leland Yee (D-CA) will have better luck. He also plans to sponsor a bill that would stop employers from asking for a candidate's social network passwords, an act he calls completely unacceptable.
The bill comes after a growing number of businesses and public agencies around the country are asking job seekers and workers for their Facebook and Twitter account information and passwords, Sen. Yee said, adding that his bill would also stop interviewers from telling applicants to log in and print out their social media pages.
It's just a matter of time before the bills are ready to be put to a vote in both the House and Senate. It's not a difficult decision to make: While social media accounts give employers access to important information, the information is ultimately personal and should only be volunteered. It's sick that employers would make volunteering information a requirement.
If members of Congress hope to get re-elected, they'll fight for the unemployed masses to relieve applicants of difficult decisions in balancing their privacy with their income. It may be one of the only issues both sides of the aisle can agree on.