By Mark Long / Top Tech News. Updated March 29, 2012.
The House of Representatives has rejected a proposal that would have required the Federal Communications Commission to prohibit any regulated entity from requiring job seekers or employees to disclose passwords for social-networking Web sites.
The proposal, an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said that that no American should have to provide their personal passwords to Facebook, Flickr and Twitter as a condition of employment.
"It only makes sense because those that are using these types of social media have an expectation of privacy," Perlmutter said while addressing the House on Tuesday.
Americans have an expectation that their right to free speech or their right to religious freedom will be respected when they use these types of social media, Perlmutter said.
"There is already plenty available to employers to do the background checks they need" without demanding the confidential passwords of job applicants and workers, he said.
Opportunity for Bipartisan Action
The House Wednesday voted 236-185 against Perlmutter's amendment. Still, this week's vote should not be viewed as a litmus test on where the majority of Republican members of the House stand on the issue.
In response to Perlmutter's amendment, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said that amending the FCC bill was an ineffective way to stop employers and others from mandating that job seekers and workers turn over the social-networking credentials.
"I think it's awful that employers think they can demand our passwords and can go snooping around," Walden said on the House floor Tuesday. "There is no disagreement with that. Here's the flaw: Your amendment doesn't protect them."
Among other things, even if the amendment had passed, the FCC's jurisdiction would have been limited to the telecommunications industry, Walden said. However, the chairman of the House communications and technology subcommittee left the door open to addressing the privacy issue in a way that would offer consumers more comprehensive protection.
"There are many of us that would like to work with you on legislation," Walden told Perlmutter while debating the amendment on the House floor. "I think this is an issue that we all share, and that is protecting privacy."
Skirting Existing Laws
In any event, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the U.S. Department of Justice may ultimately conclude that companies which demand the login credentials from job applicants and employees may already be violating existing laws. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have already asked the two federal agencies to launch investigations.
Employers are already prohibited from asking job applicants and workers a wide range of questions about their age, ethnicity, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, religion and other personal matters. So demanding the confidential login credentials of job seekers and workers -- or coercing them go online in the presence of a company representative -- may be deemed just another way of acquiring the answers to prohibited questions.
What's more, if such hiring and continuing-employment practices are allowed to stand, the constitutional right to free speech of social network users could effectively be stifled, given that social networking users would be afraid to post anything on their personal pages that an employer might deem inappropriate.
"Employers have no right to ask job applicants for their house keys or to read their diaries," Schumer said Monday. "Why should they be able to ask them for their Facebook passwords and gain unwarranted access to a trove of private information about what we like, what messages we send to people, or who we are friends with?"