Late last week, the House of Representatives shot down a proposed amendment to H.R. 3309, the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2012, that would have had a big impact on the landscape of social media, with implications for basically anyone with a Facebook profile. The legislation, submitted by Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter, proposed new restrictions to FCC rules that sought to prohibit employers from demanding social network usernames and passwords from their employees. With a final vote (essentially drawn down party lines, 236-184) against the amendment, your employer can still request access to your social accounts. And he’s still well within his rights.
While employers prop themselves up on the legal precedent that suggests that workers should have a reduced expectation of privacy while at work, this increasingly common (and increasingly troubling) practice has caught the attention of the ACLU, as well as Facebook itself.
ACLU attorney Catherine Crump likens it to opening an employee’s mail — a federal offense. “People are entitled to their private lives. You’d be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything or interest inside,” she reasoned. “It’s equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person’s private social media account.”
Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer on Policy, Erin Egan also responded with a firm statement in opposition to the practice. “In recent months, we’ve seen a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people’s Facebook profiles or private information,” she writes. “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… We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action.”
As outrage builds and new measures are drawn up by lawmakers on both sides of the debate, the crux of the issue has become whether (and how) Facebook privacy rights are different from traditional privacy rights. Employers may cite their right to conduct drug tests, background tests, and personality tests to determine whether someone is fit for employment, but asking for a urine sample is not at all the same as asking for a Facebook password. No matter how much evidence of drug abuse an employer finds in a cup, the implication goes no further than to the employee tested. By allowing the privacy of our Facebook profiles to be compromised by anyone, we are not only allowing our privacy, but the privacy of our friends, family, and colleagues — basically anyone we’ve ever connected with on Facebook — to be compromised in the process. And that’s not a weight I want on my shoulders.