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What you need to know about SNOPA (The Social Networking Online Protection Act)

June 7, 2012

By Suneetha Giridhar, PHR

In the great arc of human existence, events always combine with technology to change peoples’ lives. In turn, they push lawmakers to draft new legislation that nobody would have imagined only handfuls of years earlier.

One such federal bill, currently in the early stages of the legislative process, is the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA) – a federal bill introduced on April 27th, 2012 by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. This legislation would ban employers from requiring their employees and job applicants to give them usernames, passwords, and other access to the online content in their social networking sites.

Employers have naturally wanted access to those sites, especially those of their applicants, to further vet their qualifications and suitability for employment.

ASE has held several roundtable discussions on this topic where members have shared both their frustration and confusion over whether and how to use such information. In the absence of regulation there is the danger that employers may use such information to illegally discriminate against protected groups. More insidious is using the information without illegal intent but inconsistently, which can lead to disparate impact in ways they did not even consider possible. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been urging Congress to protect applicants and employees from requests to share their private information on personal networks such as Facebook.  According to a statement from the ACLU, “We need a bright line rule—if it’s behind a password, that means keep out, whether you’re an employer, a school or the government.”

Rep. Engel stated that a federal statute was needed to protect the American public. Some states are taking their own actions. On May 2, 2012, Maryland became the first state prohibiting employers from requesting the social media passwords or accessing the social media accounts of prospective and current employees. Michigan has introduced the Social Network Account Privacy (SNAP) Act, which would also prevent schools from requesting access to student social media accounts.

Password Protection Act Of 2012 follows closely on the heels of SNOPA. This act would restrict employer access to employees online accounts.  The bill was unveiled in the Senate by Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

All of these bills and statutes are seeking to address the new challenges brought on by the Internet and privacy concerns.  

There are increasing news reports in recent months of employers requiring employees and applicants to submit their passwords for personal networking sites such as Facebook. Employers are well advised to approach the issue conservatively. Obviously they need to keep a close watch on these statutes as they develop. In the meantime, they need to establish common-sense policies on accessing social networking sites for recruitment or employment-related decisions. These should include clearly informing employees/nas/content/live/sbamlicants of their intent (or non-intent) to access such sites, and formulating clear, job-related rationales, that they can easily articulate, for doing so.

Have a social networking related human resources question?  ASE provides free fact-based answers to your questions!  Just click here to find out how.

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