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Social Media Bill - Protecting Your Privacy

How would you react if you were asked to hand over your Facebook username and password during a job interview? Could your answer determine whether or not you’re offered the job?

Under current law, there is nothing to stop an employer or university from requiring this very personal information. This scenario is the reason we decided to work together on ‘The Social Media Protection Act’ (AB218/SB 223).

The bill is fairly straight forward: if passed, it would make it illegal to require an employee, job applicant, student, prospective student, tenant, or prospective tenant to turn over their username and password to any social media website. That’s it. There has been some confusion that this legislation would prevent people from looking at public posts on a Facebook, Twitter, or other websites. That is not the case. What is public will remain public. 

In the text of the bill, the list of what employers, universities, and landlords are still allowed to do is extensive:

  • They can still monitor what is done on a company-owned computer.
  • They can still restrict what websites are visited on a company-owned computer.
  • They can monitor anything done publicly on a Facebook or Twitter page.
  • They can conduct an investigation or require an employee to cooperate in an investigation of any alleged unauthorized transfer of confidential information via social media.

This bill protects an individual’s privacy while still giving employers the flexibility they need to run their businesses. It also gives employers and universities the clarity they need when deciding on a cohesive social media policy. They will now know explicitly what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do under the law.

Not only does this bill protect a student or prospective job applicant, it also maintains the privacy of everyone in your online social network.

How? Let’s say you have a Facebook account and no matter how private you have your settings, if someone you’re friends with is required to give their username and password, then whoever has that information can view your private page and any private conversations you’ve had with that individual. Remember the message (much like an email) you sent to your friend about your boss or the venting session about a spouse, good friend, or coworker? Under current law, those conversations could be accessed without your consent.

We believe this bill is a good example of how Republicans and Democrats can work together in the legislature during a time when our state is polarized politically. After seeing 14 other states pass social media bills such as this, we decided to work together in a bi-partisan manner to work on this common sense legislation. We reached out to the business community, consumer advocates, students, and landlords to make this the best bill possible. In a letter to the entire Legislature, Wisconsin Manufactures and Commerce commended our work and stated “the authors…have made a serious attempt to balance privacy concerns related to social media with the needs of employers to fulfill their obligations on monitoring an employee’s work-related internet activity.” The bill also has the support of the ACLU. It’s not often those two organizations can agree on policy!

Our society is at a tipping point when it comes to laws regarding social media. As more and more people rely on social media sites as a means to connect with family, friends, and business associates, we need our current privacy laws to reflect today’s trends. We, as legislators, must keep up with the pace of technology. As the times evolve, so must our laws. 

It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that it was made illegal to open someone else’s mail. It wasn’t until 1986 that it was made illegal to look at another individual’s email. This bill is another step in a progression to protect our citizen’s privacy when a new means of breaching that privacy becomes available. 

The bill received a public hearing in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. We’re hopeful the legislation will continue to move forward and be debated on the floor when the legislature returns for the fall session.

Submitted by State Representatives Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) and Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay).

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