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Inside Privacy Updates on Developments in Global Privacy & Data Security from Covington & Burling LLP

Bill Would Set Federal Restrictions on Employer, School Access to Personal Online Accounts

Posted in Congress, Social Media, United States

A bill reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday would prohibit employers and schools from requesting or demanding access to employees’ or students’ personal social-media accounts.

The bill, titled the “Social Networking Online Protection Act,” would bar employers from requesting or requiring that employees or job applicants provide the employer access to personal e-mail or social-networking accounts.  The bill also would bar employers from firing or otherwise retaliating against an employee or applicant for refusing or complaining about such a request. Violations would carry a civil penalty of up to $10,000, and the bill would authorize the Secretary of Labor to seek an injunction against practices that violate the law.

The bill would establish similar protections for students or applicants at colleges and K-12 schools receiving federal funds. 

The bill defines a “social networking website” as “any Internet service, platform, or website that provides a user with a distinct account,” accessed through a user-specific password or similar means, and “that is primarily intended for the user to upload, store, and manage user-generated personal content on the service, platform, or website.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced the bill, H.R. 537, with Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and Chellie Pingree (D-Me.) as co-sponsors.

Engel first introduced the bill in April 2012, but it never advanced beyond the subcommittee stage before the end of the 112th Congress.

As we have reported previously, several states — including New Jersey, California, Delaware, Maryland, and Illinois — have enacted similar restrictions on employer and/or school access to personal social-media accounts. A number of other states are considering similar measures.