Social Networking Online Protection Act: Will this Protect your Social Media Privacy Rights?

Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the “Social Networking Online Protection Act,” H.R. 537 to Congress in February.  This bill would be the national version of the social media privacy laws popping up in states nationwide. Increasingly employers and other authority figures have asked employees and others to turn over their username or passwords for their personal accounts. State legislators began introducing legislation in 2012 to prevent employers, colleges, etc. from requesting passwords to personal Internet accounts—including email, banking and social networking sites—in order to get or keep a job or regulate student activity.

Unlike most of those state laws, the bill would also protect passwords to email accounts. Seven states, California, DelawareIllinoisMaryland, Michigan, New Jersey and most recently Utah, currently have social media privacy laws on the books prohibiting requesting or requiring an employee, student or applicant to disclose a user name or password for a personal social media account. California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, and Utah laws apply to employers. California, Delaware, Michigan and New Jersey have laws that apply to  academic institutions.

Will this bill solve the privacy issues that occur when an employer or academic institutions requires revealing your password for your personal account?

Limits must be set for how and when authority figures such as employers, coaches, professors, etc, can access private social media information. Anything made public by the user is fair game because that is the information they have elected to present to the world. Reputation and public persona are important to potential and current employers and university officials because that information can affect public perception of them.  Although our online image is important and can provide a lot of information about an individual, the information that’s private should be kept that way.  A private photo album on Facebook can be likened to a photo albums kept at home vs. photos you display at work or in a public album online.  Privacy is a fundamental right and should be preserved.

Lets take a closer look at a few key points of the bill…

Under the federal bill social networking is defined as:

“[A]ny Internet service, platform, or website that provides a user with a distinct account–

“(A) whereby the user can access such account by way of a distinct user name, password, or other means distinct for that user; and

“(B) that is primarily intended for the user to upload, store, and manage user-generated personal content on the service, platform, or website.”

Defining “social networking” or “social media” could be problematic with the discrepancy between the rate of evolution of social media and the rate of evolution of the law.  Maryland’s approach of  focusing on whether the circumstance at hand involves a user name or password, and leaves vague the nature of the account or service to which the user name or password relates might be better for keeping this law relevant long term.

The bill does specify that it must be a personal account preserving and employer’s interest in accounts the own or accounts operated by employees for business purposes.  Employees and students should be careful not to mix business and personal accounts. Accounts where the line between business and personal will be where the limits of this law are fleshed out.

Enactment of the law would curtail the need for more sate laws on the issue and provide uniform protect. Uniform standards make drafting policies a lot easier for employers and universities.  They also help users know the limits of their protection nationwide, there are no worries of where to bring a suit if you feel your privacy rights have been violated in this way.

Some wonder if this is a matter for federal law?  Well, I think the answer lies in the answer tot he question “Whose job is it to protect the privacy rights of American citizen?”

My answer to the question indicates that Congress is well with its bounds.  What do you think?

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