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EXCLUSIVE: 'SNOPA' would ban employers, schools from demanding Facebook passwords

A New York Congressman has introduced federal legislation nicknamed "SNOPA" that would make it illegal for employers and educational institutions to require a potential or current employee, or a potential or current student, to divulge personal online information as part of the hiring, enrollment or discipline process.

The bill, with a full name of the Social Networking Online Protection Act, was introduced Friday by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). 

"As you know, social media and networking has become such a widespread part of communications in our country, and around the globe. However, a person’s digital footprint is largely unprotected," Engel said in a letter to Congressional colleagues asking that they support the proposal, which was obtained by from Engel's office.

"There have been countless examples of employers requiring an applicant to divulge their user name and password as part of the hiring process. Additionally, some universities, and even secondary schools, have required the student either divulge their personal information, or grant the institution access to the personal account by ‘friending’ the student."

The legislation would ban employers from requiring that employees or job candidates share social networking passwords or "other means of accessing a private account"; it would also ban post-secondary schools from disciplining students for failing to provide such access, or from discriminating against applicants who refuse to provide such access. Local educational agencies would also be banned from requiring login credentials.

"These coercive practices are unacceptable, and should be halted," Engel said in the letter. "We have to draw a line between what is publicly available information, and what is personal, private content. I think we would all object to having to turn over usernames and passwords for email accounts, or even worse, to bank accounts. User-generated social media content should be no different."

The Facebook password issue has been bubbling up for years — in 2009, a Maryland state employee complained that he was required to provide his Facebook password during a job interview. But the subject has gained much more attention in recent weeks, after several news reports, including an investigation.

This is not Congress' first attempt to crack down on the practice. In March, the House of Representatives shot down an amendment to a pre-existing FCC reform bill that would have given that agency the right to regulate on the issue. But Engel's legislation is the first federal legislation that would hit the issue head on.

Bradley Shear, a private lawyer in Maryland who has been the public face of efforts to stop the practice, said Engel's legislation was "an excellent bill" that would protect both employers and employees, along with both schools and students.

"It gives employers and schools a shield against legal liability, so no one can claim that they should have been monitoring social media...and I think because it protects both sides, it has a better chance at success than previous efforts," said Shear, who worked with Engel to craft the bill. "It's a really well thought out solution to this very young, challenging problem and I hope it gets bipartisan support."

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