Washington State to consider a social networking password protection law

Washington State legislators have introduced a bill (pdf) in the Washington State Senate that would make it unlawful for employers to ask employees or job applicants for passwords to social networking accounts.

PasswordsIf it passes, Washington will join at least six other states with similar laws.

Five Internet lawyers recently "graded" how those six other states did in defining what should be meant by "social media," "social networking site," or the like, for purposes of their respective statutes.

Comparing the Washington bill against the six state statutes we know of, the Washington bill is model most closely after the Illinois Act.

Here is a link to a redline (pdf) that takes the Illinois Act as the baseline and tracks changes in the Washington Senate bill against that. The comparison highlights how the sponsors of the Washington bill are dropping a couple of exceptions that would benefit employers; presumably the Washington legislators have seen the Illinois bill (or something very much like it) and have deliberately chosen to leave out some of the employer-friendly exceptions?

Among the express exceptions to be found in one or more of the other state statutes:

  • email;
  • passwords for employer devices;
  • actions taken to facilitate investigations of misconduct or illegal behavior.

I'm noticing different lawyers reacting differently to these laws, depending on whether they feel individual privacy protection should extend to online activities beyond or other than those on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and their ilk.

For instance, Eric Goldman faults the California statute for imprecision; he thinks the California definition of "social media" fails because it can include everything. By contrast, the group of internet lawyers issuing “grades” on this blog generally preferred the statutes that try, like California’s, to protect a broader set of online activities.

I must admit to being skeptical as to whether laws like these are needed. But maybe, with Facebook use being so ubiquitous now, there is actually a problem out there with overreaching employers, something legislators are picking up on.

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Image: Paul O'Rear / Flickr.

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