House Republicans today defeated an amendment introduced yesterday that would have banned employers demanding access to Facebook accounts. While the practice isn't widespread, it has caused a big brouhaha after reports surfaced that some organizations were requiring workers to hand over Facebook passwords as a condition of keeping their current job or getting hired for a new one.
Here is the addition that House Democrats proposed (PDF), which would have allowed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to stop any employers who asked employees or applicants for their Facebook credentials:
SEC. 5. PROTECTING THE PASSWORDS OF ONLINE USERS.
Nothing in this Act or any amendment made by this Act shall be construed to limit or restrict the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a rule or to amend an existing rule to protect online privacy, including requirements in such rule that prohibit licensees or regulated entities from mandating that job applicants or employees disclose confidential passwords to social networking web sites.
Colorado Democrat Representative Ed Perlmutter explained the problem when proposing the amendment:
People have an expectation of privacy when using social media like Facebook and Twitter. They have an expectation that their right to free speech and religion will be respected when they use social media outlets. No American should have to provide their confidential personal passwords as a condition of employment. Both users of social media and those who correspond share the expectation of privacy in their personal communications. Employers essentially can act as imposters and assume the identity of an employee and continually access, monitor and even manipulate an employee’s personal social activities and opinions. That's simply a step too far.
Oregon Republican Representative Greg Walden responded to Perlmutter during the floor debate by saying:
I think it's awful that employers think they can demand our passwords and can go snooping around. There is no disagreement with that. Here is the flaw: Your amendment doesn't protect them. It doesn't do that. Actually, what this amendment does is say that all of the reforms that we are trying to put in place at the Federal Communications Commission, in order to have them have an open and transparent process where they are required to publish their rules in advance so that you can see what they're proposing, would basically be shoved aside. They could do whatever they wanted on privacy if they wanted to, and you wouldn't know it until they published their text afterward. There is no protection here.
The amendment, which was added to a larger FCC reform package, was defeated on Wednesday by a vote of 236 to 184. The underlying bill was approved by a vote of 247 to 174, but has not cleared the U.S. Senate. Republicans are not convinced the amendment is necessary, but did say they would be open to addressing the issue in separate legislation.
Facebook on Friday stirred up quite the storm when it outlined how it wants to protect its users from employers demanding access to their accounts. Remember: sharing or soliciting a Facebook password is a violation of the social network's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
Menlo Park said it is looking to create new laws as well as take legal action wherever necessary. The social networking giant did clarify, however, that it currently has no plans to sue employers.
This was followed by two U.S. senators on Sunday calling for an investigation to determine whether employers are violating federal law. The duo sent letters to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to see whether the practice violates the Stored Communications Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The former prohibits intentional access to electronic information without authorization and the latter bars intentional access to a computer without authorization to obtain information. In the meantime, one of the senators is already drafting legislation to stop employers asking for your Facebook password.
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